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Virginia National Guard teams testing residents and staff at long-term care facilities

Virginia National Guard teams testing residents and staff at long-term care facilities

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Master Sgt. Stephen Legge waited anxiously as three people dressed head to toe in white Tyvek suits rolled a cart toward him, preparing to stick a long swab into his nostrils.

He’d seen many people yelp and grimace over the last month as Virginia National Guard troops went from practicing on volunteer guardsmen to applying what they’d learned — more than 2,400 times since Wednesday — after state officials summoned them to help.

Moments before his turn as a volunteer at a training session Monday in Henrico County, Legge apologized in advance for any weird noises he might make. He closed his eyes and managed to stay quiet, but he wasn’t going to forget that sensation he felt in his sinuses anytime soon.

“It wasn’t painful like I thought it would be, but it wasn’t comfortable,” he said.

The Virginia Department of Health says 122,788 people have been tested for the virus in Virginia. State officials say more testing is needed before they are comfortable loosening restrictions on public gatherings and business closures.

The Virginia National Guard started administering COVID-19 tests last week at long-term care facilities, nearly two months after Gov. Ralph Northam declared a statewide emergency.

There are 18,640 confirmed cases and 852 probable cases, according to the state Department of Health. Nearly 700 people have died, many of them residents of long-term care facilities, which are susceptible to outbreak.

“We should be able to do one long-term care facility per day, which adds to the state’s testing capacity,” said Maj. Andrew Czaplicki, deputy commander of the Richmond-based 34th Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear and High-Yield Explosives Enhanced Response Force Package. “That generally should be about 1,000 tests per day.”

Truman Braslaw, a spokesman for the Virginia Department of Emergency Management, said the agency recently called on the National Guard after building enough capacity to test more samples.

“VDH and the state lab partnered with UVA and VCU to receive additional testing support that they had available and, at the same time, our state lab has steadily increased its daily testing capacity now to 400,” he said.

The state Guard has trained six teams — each with about 18 soldiers and airmen — to perform the tests, handle the samples and transport them to labs for analysis.

At the Guard’s Waller Depot in Henrico on Monday, troops simulated going room to room in a long-term care facility to test patients. In addition to practicing the sample collection swabs on Legge and a pair of dummies, the troops practiced how to safely remove and decontaminate their gear.

Czaplicki said a total of 2,411 tests had been performed at about a dozen long-term care facilities since Wednesday, and that teams were deployed to two more on Monday.

The tests are being provided by the state or private facilities that request assistance through VDH, he said.

The Guardsmen said they could not say where exactly they are performing the tests.

The state National Guard has more than 530 troops deployed for its response to the pandemic in Virginia. The soldiers and airmen not involved in testing are overseeing and handling the distribution of emergency food and medical supplies.

Alfred Puryear, chief of public affairs for the Virginia Guard, said it is the longest deployment he can remember since 2010, when back-to-back snowstorms in the Washington area battered schools and businesses, shutting things down for days.

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