In a year of unanticipated, across-the-state need of every kind, the West Virginia National Guard has been ready, willing, and so able—making it WV Living’s 2020 West Virginian of the Year.
From the time COVID-19 hit—let’s call it March 24, the day Governor Jim Justice’s stay-at-home order closed businesses across the state—Facing Hunger Food Bank faced dramatically changed circumstances.
“Almost immediately, we saw an increase in demand of about 50 percent,” says CEO Cyndi Kirkhart. At the same time, distribution got much, much more challenging. The usually reliable bevy of volunteers shriveled up, and some of the 250 partners the food bank works with across 17 counties—pantries run by churches, for example—closed out of concern for safety.
“Suddenly I had higher demand, and I didn’t have my usual volunteer force to get us through,” Kirkhart says. On top of that, distribution logistics had to change in every detail: Personal protective equipment (PPE) and social distancing measures had to be put in place for those who did brave the contagion and volunteer. New mobile pantries were needed to replace pantries that closed. And, most labor-intensively, rather than displaying foods in bulk for people to choose from, the food bank had to pre-package emergency supplies.
In short, a gap opened between Facing Hunger’s capacity on the one hand and its mission on the other, and the gap widened almost bewilderingly. As it became a chasm, Kirkhart reached out. With the networking of Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster and a good word from Congresswoman Carol Miller, help arrived—in force.
“Enter the National Guard,” Kirkhart says with appropriate dramatic flair.
From our vantage point at the far end of this strange year, it’s hard to imagine pandemic response in West Virginia without the West Virginia National Guard. From the creation and distribution of PPE early on to ongoing emergency food packaging and distribution to coronavirus testing and contact tracing, plus myriad behind-the-scenes assists that get less attention, we’ve heard sometimes daily about the WVNG’s presence at the front lines with manpower, expertise, equipment, and technology.
The WVNG plays many important roles across the U.S. and around the world. But in a year that has been dominated by the COVID-19 pandemic, it is its trusty role in emergency response and recovery here at home that makes the West Virginia National Guard our 2020 West Virginian of the Year.
Before most of us even heard of COVID-19, people who plan ahead for medical emergencies understood the potential threat—and they looked to the WVNG.
“We were aware and already very nervous in February,” says Cabell Huntington Hospital emergency medicine doctor Dominique Wong. As chair of the hospital’s Medical Readiness Committee, she’d worked previously with the WVNG to retrain hospital staff in mass casualty procedures, and she thought of the Guard now. “I’ve had some training myself on biologic response, but it’s always best to go to the experts. They came in early March and we did a whole-department review, from our screening policy at the front door to the flow of the patients to analysis of the air flow within our department. And they reviewed with us how to don and doff our PPE,” she says. “They are so well-trained and easy to work with—it really was a godsend to not have to reinvent the wheel.”
The Guard was training other medical professionals and first responders around that time, too, part of earliest preparations across the state.
On March 13, Justice directed the WVNG to provide a coordinated response to COVID-19—the beginning of its COVID-19 mission. On the 17th, as the first West Virginians were testing positive for the coronavirus, the Guard conducted a tabletop exercise to anticipate the range of pandemic-related missions it might be called to participate in in service to the residents of West Virginia. And it immediately plugged into its extensive network of public- and private-sector partnerships across the state, both to tap into resources and to make its own resources available. On a single day just a few weeks later, at the beginning of April, nearly 500 Guard members were lending hands across the state, the Charleston Gazette-Mail reported: testing portable broadband in Wetzel County for telemedicine visits. Helping Saint Francis Hospital in Charleston convert office space to hospital rooms. Teaching grocery store employees in the Kanawha Valley how to decontaminate incoming supplies.
Personal protective equipment
By about that time, we’d all heard about N95 masks. “Personal protective equipment” and “PPE” became part of our daily conversations, along with the shortage of it.
The WVNG quickly became central to coordinating PPE production and distribution across the state. Some 30 academic institutions and private and nonprofit organizations partnered to 3D print N95 masks, and the WVNG transported the masks from all over to Charleston to be fitted with filters.
Molding masks, it turned out, was faster than printing them. Guard members molded thousands of “Shepherd Masks,” the high-performance N95 facsimile that was designed at Shepherd University, for medical support staff.
Guard members sewed masks, too, at the West Virginia Parachute Maintenance Facility at Camp Dawson, in Preston County. Some even pressed their own families’ sewing machines into service. “Every resource has been tapped to meet the needs of the mission,” Master Sergeant Anthony Tinsman said in a May 10 video as he sewed a mask on his sister’s machine.
Beyond masks, the Guard was partnering with entities across the state to make other protective gear, including reusable surgical masks and gowns, full body suits, and boots. And as COVID case numbers surged and PPE ran in short supply first here, then there across the state, the Guard’s ability to transport large volumes of materials anywhere quickly became critical.
To stay ahead of that curve, the Guard asked the Data Driven WV team at West Virginia University to create a dashboard of public health resources. The dashboard would, among other functions, forecast PPE demand down to the facility level. Operating out of its Rock Branch facility in Poca, the Guard coordinated daily PPE deliveries of PPE from the National Strategic Stockpile and existing state stockpiles to all 55 counties in the state.
COVID testing and contact tracing
In mid-April, with case numbers in nursing homes rising, WVNG members fanned out to nursing homes and state hospitals to administer COVID tests.
Testing soon ramped up everywhere, and county health departments were overwhelmed. The Randolph-Elkins Health Department is one of many where the WVNG pitched in on large-scale community testing. “They helped by supplying resources such as manpower to help do the testing and supplies for testing, including PPE. Even now, they are involved with the daily community testing that is taking place in Randolph County through the Health Department,” Tracy Fath, a spokesperson for the Health Department, said in October. “They have been an essential partner in proactively assisting our teams.”
And it wasn’t just testing. County health departments were newly tasked with everything from fielding telephone inquiries about COVID to following positive test results up with contact tracing in order to slow the spread. In the state’s most populous county, the WVNG had a presence at the Health Department from March on. “Initially, the Guard helped with complaint investigations and with screening and foot traffic control at the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department. When the Health Department’s COVID-19 line was operating 24/7, Guard members helped answer phones,” says KCHD Public Information Officer Lori Kersey. “The Guard has also delivered supplies, completed cleaning and sanitization after nursing home outbreaks, and assisted with some COVID-19 testing events.” Eight Guard members were still helping with COVID-19 contract tracing at the Health Department into the fall.
As November approached and case numbers rose alarmingly across the state, Justice called for a redoubling of testing activity. The WVNG was everywhere in the weeks that followed, on some days staffing testing lanes in 20 counties and more.
From Brooke County to Greenbrier County and Logan County to Jefferson County, the WVNG helped every part of the state slow the virus’s spread.
And meanwhile, everywhere
The Guard’s broad resources have made it a go-to during the pandemic. Members have helped process the deluge of unemployment applications, secured state agency computer networks against attack, produced training videos for free distribution, and provided Wi-Fi at WVNG armories for public use.
And meanwhile, the day-to-day work of providing for West Virginians in need has gone on. “Three teams from the West Virginia National Guard rotated with us for the first month,” says Facing Hunger’s Kirkhart. “And then we had pretty much a set team from April until the end of September. They were just a food-boxing force to be reckoned with. We couldn’t have done it without them—I can’t say that enough.”
While the hands-on work goes on, the WVNG always has an eye on ways to improve logistics. Working with both Facing Hunger and Mountaineer food banks, Guard leadership soon reached out to suggest that operations might be improved if there were a third food bank in the state. “Chad Morrison at Mountaineer Food Bank and I said, we don’t really need a third food bank—but it would be great if we had a central, collective site we could work from,” Kirkhart says. “Almost as fast as you can imagine, they came up with a plan to lease 21,000 square feet at their Rock Branch facility to the two food banks. We’re using it right now.”
Champions beyond belief
From the beginning of its COVID-19 mission, the West Virginia National Guard’s goal has been to tap resources and ideas from across the state to minimize the virus’s effects on West Virginia, Major General James Hoyer, Adjutant General of the WVNG, said in early August. “By working together and leveraging both existing and new partnerships, we can take advantage of the creativity and expertise that exists in the state to engage a professional response and to push innovative approaches and solutions to problems that exist or might arise.”
The WVNG has excelled at that throughout COVID-19—all while maintaining its ongoing roles across the state and nation and around the world. The Guard helped with clean-up in Minden and Alderson after flash floods in June, for example, and flew firefighting missions in California in September and October.
The WVNG excels because of the personal commitments of its thousands of individual members. “I think sometimes the assumption is that they just follow assignments—that they do what they’re told,” Kirkhart says, reflecting on Facing Hunger’s experience. “That doesn’t give enough credit to their active participation. Our work became their work. Our team became their team.” Guard members working week in, week out alongside her staff stayed in hotels, away from their families and their daytime jobs and lives. “In a pandemic, every one of us is concerned about our loved ones,” she says. “‘Am I where I’m supposed to be?’ And I really feel like the ones who worked with us felt very good about, ‘Yes, we are where we’re supposed to be.’ We got a lot of great work done together.”
Governor Justice expressed his pride plainly.
“If there is a state with a better National Guard, I’d love to see it, because our Guardsmen and women in West Virginia are champions beyond belief, and they’ve done an incredible job,” he said at an October 19 press conference. “All West Virginians should be so thankful and so grateful that we have them.”
We couldn’t agree more.