DeWine: No telling how long Guard troops needed in hospitals

Gov. Mike DeWine said it’s an open question whether more members of the Ohio National Guard will need to be mobilized to deal with a surge in COVID-19 cases, driven by the Omicron variant.

He has already activated 2,300 guard members, many with medical training, to help at hospitals statewide. Last week about 40 guard members arrived at Miami Valley Hospital, where they will be helping with food service, patient transportation and other non-clinical jobs.

DeWine, his wife Fran, and Maj. Gen. John Harris, the state’s adjutant general, visited the Defense Supply Center on the east side of Columbus on Thursday as about 100 members of the Ohio Army National Guard reported for duty and processing.

“They’re getting assignments today and will be in hospitals tomorrow,” DeWine said.

Credit: Paul Vernon

Credit: Paul Vernon

On a half-hour tour of the Columbus facility the DeWines got a quick description of how troops were being processed. They talked to the soldiers being checked in at the time, and quizzed them on their hometowns and civilian jobs. Fran DeWine handed out buckeye cookies.

“I don’t know whether we’re going to need to call in more members of the National Guard,” DeWine said after the tour. “No one knows how long this Omicron surge is going to last.”

He hopes it develops as it did in South Africa, where the strain emerged with a rapid spread followed by rapid decline. It’s likely to be a “very tough” January, with hopes that it will ease off in early February, DeWine said. But health experts can’t be sure, he said.

“As I told members of the guard today, ‘I don’t know how long your deployment’s going to be,’” DeWine said. “I hope it’s not very long.”

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Ohio Army and Air National Guard troops have both been called up, Harris said. Army troops are being processed through the Defense Supply Center, while Air Guard troops are going through four air bases in the state, he said.

“We have additional capacity in the National Guard,” Harris said.

Harris said many of the mobilized guard personnel work in key civilian jobs, including as first responders. The numbers and timing of mobilizations are calculated to minimize impact on other vital services, he said.

Guard troops are working in about three dozen Ohio hospitals now, Harris said. His office is coordinating with the state Department of Health to send them where they’re needed.

Nearly two years into the pandemic, health care workers are “overworked, they’re overwhelmed,” Harris said. Guard troops will be doing everything from administrative tasks to monitoring patients and janitorial work — anything to free up clinical staff, he said.

About 65% of the guard already deployed is in hospitals along the state’s northern edge, with 20% in central Ohio and 15% in the state’s southern half, Harris said.

“We do anticipate that shifting,” he said. As the surge of COVID-19 cases moves south — and, officials hope, eases in the north — guard personnel will follow.

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As of Thursday, 56% of Ohio Army National Guard troops have been fully vaccinated, and another 11% have received a first dose, Harris said. He expects the rate to follow that of the Air Guard, which quickly reached a 90% vaccination rate after commanders set a deadline.

The Pentagon has ordered Army Guard and Reserve soldiers to get vaccinated against COVID-19 by June 30, 2022; but the U.S. Air Force set its own deadline of Nov. 2, 2021. Harris has set the Ohio Army National Guard deadline for March 31.

“Every day that goes by that our people aren’t ready just makes it more difficult for us to respond,” he said.

Harris said he doesn’t want to vilify unvaccinated soldiers, but he’s “disappointed” that many believe misinformation about the shots.

DeWine said many more COVID-19 testing sites will soon pop up around the state, with the guard helping at some. The aim is to keep people from going to already-crowded hospital emergency rooms for tests, he said.

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