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SALT LAKE CITY — As the volume of COVID-19 cases continues to grow at high levels, Utah's citizen soldiers are ramping up their efforts to help mitigate the spread of the potentially deadly illness.
Members of the Utah National Guard's Joint Task Force 97 are gearing up to expand their presence in the state's ongoing battle to control the coronavirus outbreak, including adding more manpower at various care sites across the Beehive State. Working in conjunction with the Utah Department of Health, more National Guard soldiers and airmen are being deployed statewide to bolster staffing at COVID-19 mobile testing sites in Salt Lake City and elsewhere.
"We're here to enhance capabilities and fill gaps for the state. We're not the lead on this, it's the Utah Department of Health," explained Col. Tammy Manwaring, commander of Joint Task Force 97. "We're here to support. The testing effort and the contact tracing effort are our biggest missions with this task force."
Since March, the Utah National Guard has provided assistance to the state and local health departments to stem the spread of COVID-19. Currently, there are approximately 300 service members working to enhance the state's capabilities in several areas, including facility assessment, training and warehouse operations, she added.
Manwaring said that in response to the new emergency declaration by Gov. Gary Herbert, the Guard is coordinating with the state to increase its support.
"We've definitely gotten busier. (The soldiers and airmen) have a busy schedule," she said. "They have a full schedule Monday through Friday and often into the weekend on Saturday and Sunday. They're very up tempo and doing the best that we can to keep up with the COVID numbers."
Statewide, the task force has tested as many as 2,000 people in a single day, she said.
"We send our teams out to a lot of the high-risk populations," Sgt. Adrian Jackson said. "We go to rehab facilities, nursing homes and we try to get them tested and also coach them on how to separate everybody to prevent the spread of the virus."
Jackson began his deployment on the task force in May. He said much of the initial time on the job was helping people understand how to treat patients during an infectious outbreak.
"A lot of the extended care facilities, they didn't know how to handle a pandemic like this, they never had a virus that was spreading that quickly," he said. "We were able to guide them on the separation of anybody with the virus and reduce the spread of it."
Despite helping scores of people during the pandemic, he said there were some tough times as well.
"We had a facility a couple of months ago where two of the residents passed away while I was on my way to test them from COVID," Jackson said.
Fellow task force member Sgt. David Gordon admitted he was anxious upon first joining the effort, but has since learned to appreciate the work they are doing and its benefit to the people he serves.
"At first, there was a lot of tension for myself because I was nervous about this whole entire thing because I never really had to do anything like this," he said. "Now, I'm comfortable. I'm able to assure people and help take worry away from people."
In his normal military duties, Gordon packs parachutes for the Army's competition and demonstration parachute team. He said that position has helped him learn how to deal with high-stress situations of virtually any kind.
"I'm saving lives, so it's a little bit of a difference," he said. "It's still just as stressful but now I'm kind of used to the stress and it's not nearly as frightening as it could have been."
Jackson's military job is in human intelligence collection, which involves talking to or interrogating individuals for information. Some of those skills have come in handy in his new position as a front-line worker.
"It's still a lot of talking to people. I go into the facilities (and) we have to make connections with the facility managers and build rapport," he explained. "It's all pretty standard. The only difference is now I'm sticking sticks inside of people's noses."
In the months of the task force's existence, it has tested over 120,000 people since the beginning of the pandemic without the virus spreading throughout teams, Jackson said.
"A couple of people have contracted the virus," he said. "However, that was from an outside person. It wasn't from unit testing."
Maj. Daniel Wheatley, the senior officer in charge of the mobile testing teams, said as far as the new mandate announced by the governor, his unit has been on standby preparing to mobilize whenever called upon.
"We've already increased quite a bit over the last three months. We've gone from about 600 tests per day, all the way up to about 1,700 tests per day and that's just our testing teams," he said. "The details are still being worked out on this last initiative from Gov. Herbert. But we're basically just kind of waiting to gear up to increase our capacity."