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How Virginia's National Guard is ramping up COVID-19 testing efforts

Posted at 6:59 PM, May 04, 2020
and last updated 2020-05-04 20:36:05-04

HENRICO COUNTY, Va - Virginia has lagged behind other states in coronavirus testing, but newly formed “sampling strike teams” with the Virginia National Guard are aimed at expanding testing capacity statewide in the weeks and months to come.

There are now six teams trained to enter healthcare facilities like nursing homes or rehab centers, and collect samples from patients. Since deploying some of those units on April 29, Va. National Guard officials said their teams have collected more than 2,400 samples at nearly a dozen facilities statewide.

“Go room to room in a longterm care facility in a very systematic, organized way. We should be able to do about one longterm care facility per day, which adds to the state’s testing capacity,” said Major Andrew Czaplicki, with the Virginia National Guard. “We should generally be doing about 1,000 [samples] per day.”

Each sampling team consists of 15-20 soldiers or airmen, and officials said the personnel actually collecting the samples are trained medical professionals. Training for the more than 120 Guardsmen working the sampling teams was provided by the Virginia Department of Health.

“One person is taking the swab, one solider or airmen is taking the swab from the swab taker. That makes sure person taking the swab doesn’t contaminate their hands with the sample,” Major Czaplicki said. “On the back end of the strike team we have soldiers and airmen providing decontamination to make sure we aren’t bringing any COVID out of the facility and potentially contaminating ourselves or the next facility.”

Public or private facilities can request sampling assistance through their local health department. Those public health leaders then submit a request to the Virginia Department of Emergency Management, who deploys a team to the facility. The samples are securely transported to labs for the actual testing.

“There’s a definite need for us. There’s a capacity level we’re trying to get to throughout the state, and there are some localities that need help. We’re hear to offer that help and be their good neighbor,” Major Czaplicki.

The Virginia Department of Health provides the testing supplies, Guard officials said. Teams are trained using the nasal swab method of sample collection for now.

Msgt. Stephen Legge, who coordinates the logistics for the sampling teams, volunteered to be a live test-dummy for his colleagues Monday, reacting to the long nasal swab going up his nose with a grimace but little more.

“I wanted to make sure I knew what I was asking people to do.” Msgt. Legge said. “I expected it to hurt. It didn’t hurt, just felt very strange. Can’t tell you exactly unless you experience it.”

“I think Virginia will be comfortable with knowing that testing has ramped up, and we’re capable of doing incredible amounts of work,” he continued.

The sampling teams also train staff at long-term care and other facilities how to properly wear N-95 masks and other forms of PPE.