An Army National Guard task force that has been coordinating COVID-19 responses from California to Texas to Michigan and places in between had gotten a slight break — or at least a slowing of the pace — toward summer’s end. Then the virus ramped up again.
The soldiers of Task Force 46 primarily hail from the Michigan National Guard and are drawn from the 46th Military Police Command. Back in 2013, the Guard created the task force and assigned its members the mission of responding to catastrophic chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear incidents inside the United States.
For nearly seven years, that’s what they trained for in large-scale exercises such as Vibrant Response and Guardian Response. Those exercises focused on bringing together a multi-level, multi-state and federal team from local police departments, hospitals, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and, of course, the Guard.
But it was the virus, not a nuclear bomb, that put the task force in a real-world mission to support U.S. citizens.
The pandemic response resulted on the task force being given an area of 15 states, from the Great Lakes region to the U.S. Southwest, in April. The area spanned three of the 10 FEMA regions, with the greatest geographic distribution of any of the regions.
Army Times checked in with the task force earlier this year when the COVID-19 mission had slowed. That was after the force of 150 soldiers coordinated months of relief effort at locations in New Orleans and Dallas, providing support for several Urban Augmentation Medical Task Forces, the key tool the Guard used to bring logistics and medical aid to beleaguered hospital staff in hard-hit areas.
At its height, a total of 1,000 service members spread across as many as 15 states were providing relief and support to civilian agencies, from FEMA to local hospitals.
By late October, many of those Guard troops had returned to their civilian jobs or were back in Michigan serving at home station.
But that changed quickly.
Currently, 350 troops from active duty and Guard units are deployed to support COVID response. That includes 150 Guard soldiers from Task Force 46, 120 Air Force medical providers in both El Paso, Texas, and North Dakota and another 80 non-medical, support personnel combined from Army and Air Force units.
Air Force Lt. Col. Charles “Brock” Miller, an internal medicine specialist, had been serving at Brooke Army Medical Center, Fort Sam Houston, Texas and knew he’d likely deploy. His team members were told they could be sent anywhere.
He didn’t expect it to be the western edge of his own state.
In early November, Task Force 46 soldiers and teams of 20 medical providers and administrative support got orders to head to El Paso, where cases had risen from less than 5,000 to more than 12,000 in a span of a few weeks.
The teams were dispatched to three area hospitals to add manpower in treating the flood of incoming patients.
After a one-day orientation, Miller and his team were working alongside civilian medical staff who’d been battling the virus for months.
Though the illness and injuries being treated are different, Miller saw clear parallels with his 2015 deployment to Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan.
“This feels most similar to that deployment than any other experience I’ve had in my career,” Miller said.
There is a lot of work in intensive care and around-the-clock support for patients.
“These are very sick patients who need a lot of support,” he said.
Air Force Staff Sgt. Blake Pfaff also deployed to El Paso from Brooke, where he’d worked in the ICU, often caring for patients battling COVID. He knew the drill and the procedures, but the number of patients each day in El Paso dwarfed what he saw at Brooke.
“What we’re dealing with here is very similar, critical patients,” Pfaff said. “But the sheer number. At Brooke there were anywhere from six to 10 patients in the ICU. Here there are 30 to 40 patients in a single unit.”
Both soldiers praised their civilian counterparts, who’ve been working through the pandemic since it started. El Paso did not see many cases proportionately for the first few months of the outbreak, but that changed, first in October with a massive spike, followed by a rising number of cases since, with few exceptions.
The county alone accounts for 6 percent, or 86,752, of all cases reported in Texas and nearly 5 percent, or 1,091, of deaths from the virus in the state. And that is with a county population of fewer than 840,000, according to U.S. Census data.
An estimated 10 percent of the county’s population has contracted the virus and as of this week nearly 12,000 residents were under hospital care.
As Miller, Pfaff and other medical personnel arrived, Col. John Koltvedt, the task force’s officer-in-charge, was there waiting.
Koltvedt had worked as the task force operations officer since it was activated in the spring. He received medical personnel from four different Air Force bases for the El Paso mission and funneled them to the assigned hospitals, integrating them into the staff as quickly as possible.
Once in place, the colonel and his task force staff’s job is to ensure that all of the administration, logistics and support the military medical personnel need is taken care of as they work each day in the hospitals.
Much further north of El Paso, Capt. Angela Cervelli arrived in mid-November in North Dakota as the task force’s operations chief for their similar mission.
She’s also coordinating medical support teams but at six different hospitals in a more rural, spread-out area.
Hot spots dot the sprawling state. As with El Paso, it saw relatively few cases until numbers began to rise from late August through October, more than doubling to nearly 80,000 cases and close to 1,000 deaths in a state with a population of about 800,000 people.
Both officers have been on duty with the COVID response since its early stages. And while the units follow the latest medical guidance, one of the biggest changes has been better coordination. That’s come through assigning a liaison officer for each location.
That way there’s a point of contact between the team and their Guard coordinators.
The liaison does a day-by-day check, filling the needs of the team, from housing issues to food, even religious or behavioral health support.
Each of the deployments was slated for 30 days. The El Paso mission began in early November and is set to wrap up within the week. The North Dakota mission hit the ground in mid-November and will be going through mid-December.
Either could be extended. Or teams would redeploy to home station and others assigned to Task Force 46 for another round of deployments as many health experts expect COVID cases to rise significantly in the coming months.
Until late March at least, though, Guard support for COVID response from the Southwest to the Great Lakes will be run through Task Force 46.
Todd South has written about crime, courts, government and the military for multiple publications since 2004 and was named a 2014 Pulitzer finalist for a co-written project on witness intimidation. Todd is a Marine veteran of the Iraq War.