Story by Tech. Sgt. Kasey Phipps, 137th SOW, Oklahoma Air National Guard
OKLAHOMA CITY — Members of the Oklahoma Army and Air National Guard are supporting the Oklahoma State Department of Health in fulfilling Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt’s continued efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19 throughout the State.
In this latest push, Oklahoma Guardsmen, like so many other Guardsmen throughout the U.S., help with contact tracing, which is the process of tracing and monitoring the contacts of infected people within the State, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“We're minimizing the spread and helping with the community…” said Oklahoma Army National Guard Sgt. Anna Aranda, a member of the 120th Forward Support Company, 45th Field Artillery Brigade, located in Altus, Oklahoma. She is the noncommissioned officer in charge for the Guardsmen working at the Texas County Health Department in Guymon, Oklahoma. “We're working closely with the Oklahoma State Department of Health and making a tremendous impact with them. You know, they needed our help and so we're here.”
The tracing, which begins with a positive COVID-19 test, follows the same procedures for any other disease or contagion tracing process. An employee from the Department of Health makes the initial call, informing the individual of a positive test result, but only after confirming their identity. They then work with the call recipient to voluntarily build a list of contacts who could have had exposure to the infected individual. That list gets passed to a trained person who then follows up with each of the contacts.
“There's the same procedure, same protocol, same stratagems to limit exposure,” said Eddie Garza, a disease intervention specialist with the Oklahoma State Department of Health. “But morbidity is so high here and actually everywhere in Oklahoma, but especially in Texas County, that we needed reinforcements. The National Guard has been a tremendous help in contact tracing, because for one person who tests positive, we've had upwards of 10 to 15, sometimes 25 contacts.”
Guardsmen, who are working in a sort of call center, are trained to make the calls to each of the contacts while also protecting any identifying or medical information. Despite the “tracing” aspect of the interactions, the initial reach-out begins regular contact with potentially infected people for the duration of their contagious period and includes education of symptoms and prevention, resources such as food and supplies for those who need to quarantine and symptom monitoring for those who contract COVID-19 or have the potential to.
“We make phone calls and we inform them of their possible contact, and the response has been great,” said Aranda. “Most everyone has been polite, encouraging and thanking us for following up with them. A lot of them are worried, you know, of course, and you’ve got to show empathy, you build a kind of trust with them.”
For Aranda’s region, which focuses heavily on Guymon, a special skill set that goes further than their contact tracing training is especially important, being bilingual. The population of Guymon speaks 37 different languages, and for those other than English, Spanish is most prominent.
“We want to help the community to feel safe and for them to have an understanding of what we're saying,” said Aranda. “We have three Service members who are bilingual, and they are a tremendous asset to our team. You want to speak the language that you're comfortable with. So that's what we do, and that gives them peace of mind when we call them.”
Aranda, who is one of the three bilingual Service members there, says their ability to communicate with the community has really built rapport with those they have contacted.
“They're not afraid,” Aranda continued. “They’re not scared. So it makes me feel great that we're making such a big impact in this community. It's an amazing feeling. You can't beat that.”
Aranda said the trust between the community and the Guardsmen who are helping to carry out the contact tracing in their area is paramount to the success of their jobs as contact tracers.
“When we do contact tracing, there is fear that people have in the community about privacy,” explained Aranda. “So we're not there to worry about what they're doing. We're just worried about their symptoms and making sure that they are aware that they came in contact with somebody with COVID-19. So our goal is to make them aware so they can help [prevent] the spread, and they're usually grateful for that.”
An exponential increase in the number of COVID-19 cases in Guymon demanded more contract tracing. Since their arrival in May, the Service members from the Oklahoma Air and Army National Guard have more than doubled the calling and testing capacity in the area.
“The Guard has probably doubled my staff here in Guymon…” said Terri Salisbury, Oklahoma State Department of Health regional director. “I really appreciate the National Guard coming out and being so willing [to help]. Most people don't come to Guymon, Oklahoma, and they've all been great. They've stayed and worked through the weekends and everything else. So I'm very, very thankful for them.”