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‘We all came together’: Nevada guard members reflect on COVID mission

Updated July 5, 2021 - 7:30 am

Army Guard Spc. Demetrie Barnett clocked into the portal to get ready for his shift at the vaccination site.

As returning patients scanned their cards from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, their names popped up. He added a sticker to complete their vaccination. First-dose patients got a fresh card and a date to return.

On Wednesday, Barnett administered Pfizer shots.

“But we have all three,” he said. “They get to have their pick.”

Barnett has been activated for the COVID-19 response with the Nevada National Guard since the beginning of the pandemic.

Despite the state reaching the highest rate of positive coronavirus cases in the nation this week, the number of guard members on duty soon will decrease dramatically.

By the end of the month, fewer than 150 will be active statewide. All operations are expected to wrap up by Sept. 30, if not sooner.

“It’s all based on the needs of the community. But we are definitely there and available to help,” said Capt. Theresa Pittman, a leader within the Joint Task Force 17 unit. “I don’t know what the needs are going to be in the next eight months.”

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With the end of their mission in sight, guard members are looking back on their role in the largest and longest activation in Nevada National Guard history, which reached a peak of 1,150 members at its height in April 2020.

For Barnett, the duty was a culmination of what he set out to do by joining the Army National Guard four years ago. And as Fourth of July approached, he was extra mindful of what it means to serve.

“I just wanted to be a hero, and I felt this was the best way for me to do that,” he said.

Scope of COVID-19 mission

When the joint task force began, officials didn’t think the mission would go past October. But the ever-changing mission has been approached with compassion and bravery, Pittman said.

“We are your neighbors,” she said. “And I am so thankful I was able to help my community out in this hard time. It’s been quite the ride.”

The activation has been a blessing in more ways than one, she said.

It gave work to many guard members who lost their civilian jobs because of the pandemic. And it gave some members a chance to use their real-world skills, such as nursing and policing, as part of their dynamic missions.

Some guard members contracted the virus in Southern Nevada, but none of them had to be hospitalized.

“We all came together, and we knew it was scary,” Pittman said. “We were scared, but we put those feelings aside to get a job done.”

Last year, the guard helped the UNLV School of Medicine with its COVID-19 screening clinic. Dr. Michael Gardner, vice dean of clinical affairs at the school, helped lead that effort.

Gardner, who was a major in the Air Force, said working with the service members was natural and necessary to get the job done. The additional manpower helped operations continue into the summer.

As positive cases continue to rise statewide, it’s key to get more people vaccinated, Gardner said. But because of the low demand for vaccines, he thinks the timetable for when the guard will pull out of the mission is sufficient.

“Right now, they’re handling the volume that they have,” he said. “If there was a sudden surge of vaccinations, maybe there will be a need for additional help.”

The guard is focusing primarily on vaccinations. Service members have helped administer more than 30 percent of the state’s total 2.5 million doses.

Guard members also were critical in helping test more than 725,000 people for the virus and distribute 800,000-plus meals to needy families.

They also did contact tracing, distributed millions of items of personal protective equipment and traveled to rural areas to administer tests and vaccines.

As Independence Day approached, Pittman drew comparisons between the guard’s role in the American Revolution and its mission during the pandemic.

“They protected against the evil foreign government that we had,” she said. “And now we’re protecting against this evil foreign body.”

Two birthdays on holiday weekend

On Wednesday, Senior Airman Traesha Glover greeted patients at the College of Southern Nevada and directed them to where they could either get tested or vaccinated.

The COVID-19 mission highlighted what it takes to help out the community, Glover said. For her, the beginning — when so much was unknown — was the hardest part.

Patients getting tested would beg for vaccinations. When they started getting vaccinated, they would come in crying.

“You have to really talk to them and humble them down, let them know that it’s going to be OK,” said Glover, 31. “They would come back and say, ‘Thank you.’”

At College of Southern Nevada, the rate of vaccinations seems to be consistent but has slowed, Barnett said. He expects an average of 55 patients a day.

Barnett said he planned to spend the long holiday weekend honoring the fight for freedom that the Fourth of July represents.

And as America celebrates its 245th birthday, he’ll turn 29.

“Everybody comes together during times like these,” he said. “Being in the service and really understanding what we serve for and being in the guard serving our community, the holiday just means that much more.”

Contact Briana Erickson at berickson@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-5244. Follow @ByBrianaE on Twitter.

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