By 1st Lt. Cody Stagner, Kentucky National Guard Public Affairs
FRANKFORT, Ky. — The Kentucky Guard has been utilized in several missions across the commonwealth since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. From drive-thru COVID-19 testing sites and food banks to civil disturbance and aid given to communities during the elections, our service members have been there for each call.
Adding to a historical year, the Kentucky Guard continues to rescue our communities in need. This time, Airmen and Soldiers are joining hands with several understaffed long-term health care facilities to protect the lives of residents at these locations.
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"The Kentucky National Guard is poised to help long-term health care facilities across the state who are operating in counties in the red due to COVID-19 saturation," said Lt. Col. Travis Carpenter, Kentucky National Guard director of military support. "Our professional team of service members will operate within agreed-upon constraints to help facility leadership free their current employees up to focus on the residents who call the facilities home."
The activation of Guardsmen comes as positive tests of the coronavirus reach all-time highs, and health care is seeing spikes in coronavirus-related operations.
"Currently, we're answering the call for assistance from facilities in Lexington, Louisville, Edmonton, Mayfield, Paducah, Inez, and Hopkinsville," said Brig. Gen. Hal Lamberton, Kentucky's Adjutant General. "We recognize the need could come from anywhere in the state, and we will adjust our focus and effort as the requests for help arrive."
At Sayre Christian Village, a long-term health care facility in Lexington, internal support has diminished with an increase of positive coronavirus cases there recently.
"Right now, we have six employees who are out of work because they are COVID-positive, but we've had a total of 46 of our staff members out," said Karen Venis, chief executive officer at Sayre. "So, those are folks that can't be called on or relied on to help because they're at home recovering as well."
With the staff shortage at the facility, Venis was grateful and felt humbled by her experience with the Guard.
"We're so appreciative that the National Guard has stepped up to help us and be another layer of support for us," Venis said. "They've been here all this week and have just been extra hands and feet and boots on ground. This support will help us continue to fight this battle with COVID-19. We're so, so appreciative of that."
According to Elise Hinchman, the vice president of Marketing and Development at Sayre, they are a nonprofit standalone facility without extra staffing available from sister sites.
Hinchman said, "You can't imagine the feeling of relief to have the National Guard step in and essentially say, 'Let me lighten the load for you for a bit. You look weary, and your shoulders must be tired from caring such a heavy burden.'"
Those Guardsmen lightening the load at Sayre include Soldiers out of the 63rd Theater Aviation Brigade from nearby headquarters in Frankfort.
"With the surge of coronavirus cases, I felt like our mission would be making a difference in a time of need within our community," said Staff Sgt. Caleb Tidei of Bravo Company, 351st Aviation Support.
"This task is taking some of the pressure off of the full-time staff here," he said. "For example, their maintenance staff has about 100 different projects that have gotten behind, and because the shutdowns have limited traffic in and out of the facility and within the wards, they can't keep up with it. So we've stepped in and worked on a lot of these maintenance projects to push them to fruition."
Tidei had the opportunity to see the effects of this pandemic on residents first hand while assessing the facility with the staff.
"We met some of the residents here," Tidei said. "These people have been isolated from each other and their families for six or seven months since March. They have not been out, which means they haven't been able to go to church services or see friends and family. It's been total isolation. It was tough to see."
According to Tidei, having the chance to help others in need is why he joined the Kentucky National Guard and volunteered for this mission.
Some coronavirus-related tasks Soldiers and Airmen have been approved to support at the facilities are setup and tear down of testing areas, screening and wellness checks of staff and visitors, cleaning and disinfecting high-touch areas, and other duties as approved by the collaboration with the facility, the Kentucky Guard, Office of the Inspector General, and the Kentucky Department for Public Health.
Seneca Place, a long-term care facility in Louisville, requested support due to three-quarters of its residents contracting COVID-19 in the past month.
"This facility has seen an average of 15 new cases per week for the last four weeks," said Kentucky Air National Guard 1st Lt. Ernest Noe, the officer in charge of the team at Seneca Place. "This week, they've only had one new case. So, I think the cleaning of the high-touch areas has been effective so far."
Similar to many other facilities across the commonwealth, Seneca Place has suffered from positive cases amongst staff. According to Noe, of 130 staff members, about 33 have contracted COVID-19.
Noe, a material management commander from the 123rd Logistics Readiness Squadron in Louisville, praised his team of Airmen and stressed the importance of his mission at Seneca Place.
"We're all part of Team Kentucky, like Gov. Beshear says, and our morale is high. We're honored to help these Kentuckians out," said Noe. "As soon as we heard the numbers and had an understanding of how many people contracted COVID here, we realized how dangerous it could be for them. Some have died, unfortunately, but we've all been energized and ready to go help them take down the numbers of this virus."
Airman First Class Kaylin Dotson, a services flight Airman out of the 123d Force Support Squadron, volunteered for the mission at Seneca Place.
"None of us expected the pandemic, but we are all honored to help," she said. "It's a good, rewarding feeling, and I'm sure others feel that way because we weren't told to do this. We are all volunteers."
With help from the Kentucky Guard, Seneca Place residents can rest more comfortably in a cleaner environment, and the staff has more time to focus on the residents' health care.
"We sanitize every high-touch surface, like doors and windows—and anything you can think of—to prevent the spread of COVID-19," Dotson said. "I believe that being here for just a week has shown how important sanitizing is throughout this pandemic."
The Kentucky Guard will continue to support long-term health care facilities and mitigate the spread of COVID-19 throughout the commonwealth.
According to Lamberton, "Since the start of this pandemic, the Kentucky Guard has been, and will continue to be, an effective organization aimed at responding to our fellow Kentuckians and aiding in the Governor's efforts to stomp out the spread of COVID-19."