HELENA — Captain Ken Woolington of the Montana Army National Guard says working to help the state public health laboratory process COVID tests has given him a different understanding of the situation in the state.
“When you get involved in any situation – when you get behind that ‘green curtain,’ if you will – you’re like, ‘Wow,’” he said. “We’re seeing tests come from Eastern Montana, from local, from Western Montana – just the amount of it – and it really does give you that insider perspective of what’s going on out there.”
Woolington is the officer in charge for seven Guard soldiers who’ve been in Helena for the last week assisting the lab. They were among the first Guard members to go back to COVID response since the latest wave of new cases began.
All seven of the soldiers working with the state lab are volunteering.
“Being in the National Guard, you get to serve your state, so that was really nice, to be able to serve my local community and people I probably see on a daily basis,” said Woolington. “That was one of the reasons I definitely jumped at the opportunity to volunteer. I wanted to help out, and I knew this was a way to help out.”
Much of the work they’re doing is logistical: checking documentation on test samples, entering data, sending tests to other locations. It’s a key part of the state’s processing operation.
“We take up a lot of the tasks that take up time, and it allows the actual technicians and the medical personnel to do their medical duties – so a lot of sorting, a lot of the double-checking the last names,” said Woolington. “It may seem kind of redundant and small, but in the medical field, it takes up a lot of your time.”
On one busy day this week, more than 900 samples came into the lab – many in crates or coolers. Woolington says, so far, they’ve been able to meet their goal of sorting through all of the tests that come in each day. He says he’s proud of what they’ve been able to do to keep the process moving.
“Those little seconds here, little seconds there, times it by 900 tests, times it by 30 personnel – it adds up to hours in a day and days in a month, and that’s what we’re here for,” he said.
The Montana Department of Public Health & Human Services says the state lab is able to process about 1,000 COVID samples a day, turning around results in 48 hours or less. However, leaders say turnaround time varies much more when tests go to other labs.
DPHHS leaders say they’re grateful for the support the Guard has given to their efforts.
“The Montana Army National Guard has played a major role in the state’s response to COVID-19, and has been an excellent partner with DPHHS,” a spokesperson said in a statement. “We appreciate this continued partnership and welcome the support that’s been provided since Sept. 15. Over the past year, they have assisted with the distribution and fulfillment of orders from hospitals, nursing homes and local public health for personal protective equipment and COVID-19 tests kits, and the day-to-day operations related to the State Public Health Laboratory’s testing efforts.”
Woolington says it hasn’t been determined exactly how long the Guard soldiers will stay at the state lab, but he expects to be there for a while longer, and he’s happy to keep doing this work.
“It really brings home, ‘Wow, we’re definitely helping people, and it’s affecting people,’ and that’s what we’re here to do,” he said.
Governor Greg Gianforte announced this week he is sending Montana National Guard troops to several hospitals to help with their COVID response:
- 10 to St. Peter's Health in Helena
- 10 to Billings Clinic (already has 10 Guard members)
- 6 to St. James Healthcare in Butte
- 10 to St. Vincent Healthcare in Billings
- 24 to Missoula County
- 10 to Bozeman Health
- 20 to Benefis Health System in Great Falls
The Guard members will support staffing with non-medical ICU assistance, environmental services, patient data entry, and COVID testing, according to the governor's office.
Montana is not the only state deploying National Guard troops to help hospitals - other states include Idaho, Wyoming, Oregon, Kentucky, and Tennessee.