National Guard members assist health departments with COVID-19 response

Michael D. Smith
The Daily Ardmoreite
Members of the Oklahoma National Guard serve as contact tracers for state health workers Tuesday. A 12-member team serving in southern Oklahoma is currently helping health officials mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

In a conference room at the Carter County Health Department on Tuesday, several men and women in military fatigues quietly poured over documents given to them by health officials. Occasionally the silence would be broken by a phone call from a contact tracer to a patient who was recently in close contact with someone that tested positive for COVID-19.

The calls can be brief or detailed, depending on how much information the patient wants to share. One call lasted less than a minute, but the airman with the Oklahoma Air National Guard who made the call smiled as she hung up the phone. She had called that patient before and told her fellow service members how friendly that patient is.

It is not exactly the first active mission she expected to take, but Lt. Megan Norris of the Oklahoma National Guard, who oversees the contact tracing team, is still excited to be leading a mission to assist public health workers mitigate the spread of COVID-19. She said one of the most challenging aspects of this state active duty mission is protecting the privacy of the patients.

Contact tracers make regular contact with patients for several days to monitor potential symptoms. Even though a patient may be a friend or family member of the person who tested positive for COVID-19, Norris said the training received by her contact tracing personnel prevents them from divulging information protected by federal law.

That angers some people called by these contact tracers.

“We cannot give out HIPAA information and usually when that happens they hang up the phone,” Norris said on Tuesday. Of the roughly 80 phone calls made each day, she said about 60 of them result in a successful contact. The others are either unanswered, wrong numbers, or people who simply decline to share information.

A member of the Oklahoma Air National Guard wears the insignia of the 137th Special Operations Wing while serving as a contact tracer Tuesday.

Together with a team of 11 other members of the state’s Army National Guard and Air National Guard, Norris and other service members have spent over eight weeks helping with logistics and contact tracing in southern Oklahoma. Gov. Kevin Stitt activated hundreds of the state’s National Guard resources in April to assist with the pandemic response and local health officials have been thankful for the resources.

In April, OSDH Regional Director Mendy Spohn said upwards of 30 nurses across nine counties are responsible for conducting contact tracing if any one of dozens of illnesses are reported by health care providers. Aside from tracing food-borne illness or sexually transmitted diseases that keep public health workers busy, health departments found themselves stretched thin once the coronavirus pandemic came to Oklahoma.

The assistance provided to health departments has been a necessary resource for public health workers who must continue responding to nonvirus-related health issues like nutrition. Along with contact tracing, Norris said a separate team is specifically tasked with transporting samples from test sites to laboratories across the state.

Norris was activated nearly three months ago and her team of contact tracers arrived in late April. While her courier team did not need specific training, those assigned to contact tracing had to undergo training to prepare them. 

An Oklahoma Air National Guard member reviews contact information for people exposed to someone who tested positive for COVID-19. She and other activated members serving as contact tracers received training in order to protect personal information.

“We came in with not that much information of what was expected of us,” Norris said. The training and responsibilities evolved as the response by National Guard members became more clear. For example, redundant lessons were eliminated and cut the length of training in half.

While the contact tracing team remains isolated within the county health department, the delivery team must work with nurses to collect test samples and transport them to laboratories for testing.

Norris expects her mission to last through July and said the difficulties early became easier over time. She and other National Guard members will return to their civilian lives but noted that work to mitigate the virus is far from over.

“Once we’re off, the health department is going to be taking over this, so it’s still going to continue until there’s an answer to COVID,” Norris said.