Yellowstone County residents started filing into Cedar Hall early Wednesday afternoon, and most left in less than 30 minutes with their first dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine in their arm. On their way in and out, a specialist in the Montana National Guard greeted them and told them to have a nice day.
Since the second week of March, dozens of members from multiple units of the National and Air National Guard have filled most of the staff positions at the MetraPark and Shrine Auditorium vaccine clinics. The assignment is the latest since their activation by then-Gov. Steve Bullock in April 2020, and they’re slated to remain at least through June of this year.
“The big lesson I suppose is to be adaptable. Be able to go in 10 directions at once, if needed. And I think we all kind of have that mindset already, but some of these missions come up, and we have two weeks advance notice. Some of them, it’s two hours,” said Tech. Sgt. Brennan McCloney of the Air National Guard charged with personnel management of several dozen soldiers and airmen assigned to the Billings area.
All 50 states, plus three territories and the District of Columbia activated their National Guard soldiers and airmen following the explosion of COVID-19 cases in the United States. The number of Guard members engaged in humanitarian missions across the country during the past 12 months peaked at 47,000, according to the National Guard Bureau, the highest number since the federal response to Hurricane Katrina.
The declaration of a nationwide emergency allowed U.S. governors to shift the cost of mobilizing their state’s National Guard to Federal Emergency Management Agency. FEMA will continue to cover this cost through Sept. 30, 2021, according to a White House memorandum issued in January by the Biden administration. Under this “Title 32 Status,” Montana’s citizen-soldiers and airmen will remain under the control of Gov. Greg Gianforte while still being funded by the federal government.
Roughly 29,500 members of the Guard are still on active duty nationally. Most are aiding with the vaccine rollout, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevented reported has resulted in over 154 million doses administered as of Thursday.
In response to COVID-19 cases creeping into Montana, Bullock activated the first Guard members in April. Posted at the state’s airports and train stations, they helped screen travelers for symptoms of COVID-19. On April 20, military and civilian leadership divided the state into three zones from which Guard members could respond when needed. These ready response forces were assigned to Billings, Helena and Great Falls.
More than 300 Guard members in Montana were activated intermittently during the past year, with the number on active duty at one time peaking at just under 200, according to data from the Montana National Guard Public Affairs Office. As of Friday, 131 soldiers and airmen were assigned to COVID-19 missions.
From those three areas, soldiers and airmen became a consistent sight at hospitals, testing clinics and nursing homes. While most orders placed them in roles outside of direct medical care, troops filled roles that included transporting tests for processing in Helena and making food deliveries in Indian Country.
Tech. Sgt. McCloney, who has been with the Air National Guard for 14 years, received his first assignment at Ft. Belknap in October. Before coming to Cedar Hall, he helped with administrative work in Billings and in Glendive.
“It was mid-December in Glendive, and that stands out as a rough day. We had a lot of COVID cases, and the hospital was overrun with patients. A couple of them passed away that morning,” he said.
At the vaccination clinics in Cedar Hall and Shrine Auditorium, Guard members guide up to 900 residents a day through their doses.
“When you have an emergency or disaster, a lot of times we have to rely on volunteers. But in the case of COVID, it being an extraordinary lengthy emergency, one thing that we can’t guarantee is consistency and reliability among our volunteers…With the National Guard, since they are consistent and reliable, it streamlines the process and the level of professionalism,” said Yellowstone County Disaster and Emergency Services Coordinator KC Williams.
Williams, who has headed the county DES for a little over two years, said the outbreak of COVID-19 led to his first request for help from the Guard. The number of soldiers and airmen peaked at around 100 in Yellowstone County, when trooped assisted staff in the county’s hospitals while building a portable hospital at MetraPark.
Lt. Chad Randall with the National Guard said prior to the outbreak of COVID-19, his in-state activations were limited mostly to fires and floods. His posting at Cedar Hall marks the second time his orders sent him to MetraPark. The Billings native was part of the emergency response to a tornado that ripped the roof off the First Interstate Arena in 2010.
“This is the first time that I’ve worked alongside the Air National Guard, and it’s been quite a pleasure … Logistically, the army side couldn’t have fared quite as well without bringing in the air guard,” he said.
The nearly 30 troops who arrive at Cedar Hall Monday through Friday can take in roughly 900 people a day, and are preparing for an increase following every Montanan aged 16 and older becoming eligible for a vaccine last week.
Randall said several of the airmen and soldiers who he worked alongside and under his command have tested positive for COVID-19 while assisting in the effort to halt its spread.
Soldiers and airmen arrived along with Billings Clinic staff in July 2020 when an outbreak of COVID-19 infected the majority of residents and caregivers at Canyon Creek Memory Care. At least 17 of those residents died of illnesses related to the virus. Guard members responded within four hours of receiving a request for assistance, donning PPE and filled every role outside of medical and memory care.
The Guard assumed similar roles at Billings Clinic and St. Vincent Healthcare during the past year, augmenting exhausted staff as active COVID-19 cases mounted.
“Whether it was sweeping the floor, or changing linen, we also spent many hours doing patient interaction. So many of the patients there were left completely alone,” said Master Sgt. Neil Keane with the Air National Guard.
“I think a lot of governors around the country are realizing the potential of the Guard, now that so many have been active for over a year,” he said.