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Washington National Guard has been on COVID duty an entire year now; here's how its work has evolved

Army Spc. Travis Potter, a combat medic with Headquarters and Headquarters Battery, 2nd Battalion, 146th Field Artillery Regiment, administers a vaccine to a patient at a drive-up vaccination site in Ridgefield, Wash., February 25, 2021.

CHARLIE BOISNER/ARMY NATIONAL GUARD

By JIM CAMDEN | The Spokesman-Review | Published: March 29, 2021

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SPOKANE, Wash. (Tribune News Service) — When members of the Washington National Guard were called up to help the state deal with COVID-19, they thought they were looking at a short-term assignment.

Just a six-week pause during a lockdown while the state and nation came to grips with the virus, Major Gen. Bret Daugherty, the guard commander, said Friday.

Six weeks turned into six months and the effort, dubbed Joint Task Force Steelhead, continues to this day. On Friday, guard members marked the one-year anniversary of the day they were tasked to help food banks that that were facing staffing shortages because many of the facilities' regular volunteers stayed home for the lockdown.

Guard members sorted cans, boxed produce and stood outside handing out food, eventually distributing some 5 million meals and 84.5 million pounds of food. They also became "a victim of our own success," Daugherty said, as more and more guardsmen were called up to assemble more than 2 million test kits for possible COVID exposure, then set up and operate COVID testing sites where they administered more than 75,000 tests.

They helped map the spread of the virus and called more than 18,000 people who tested positive. When foreign hackers stole hundreds of millions from the Employment Security Department through fraudulent applications, they helped verify the identities for more than 50,000 claims.

They delivered medical supplies, including personal protective equipment and ventilators, set up clinics that have delivered vaccines to more than 121,000 Washington residents and continue to send mobile vaccination teams to areas where people have difficulty getting to medical facilities.

"Our lives were turned upside down," Daugherty told members of various Army and Air National Guard units that have been called up for the task force. "You left the safety and comfort of your homes to help people who needed it."

The soldiers and airmen were gathered in a building on Camp Murray, where slightly over a year ago, then-Vice President Mike Pence came to deliver needed supplies as Washington recorded the first known case of COVID-19 in the nation. Daugherty recalled how he, Pence, Gov. Jay Inslee and many of the federal government's top disease experts bumped elbows and coughed into their arms. People washed their hands a little longer and used hand sanitizer, he said.

"That was supposed to be the secret sauce that was going to stop the pandemic from wreaking havoc," Daugherty said. Slowly, it became clear that it was going to take longer than the six weeks initially predicted, and on the one-year anniversary, he told guard members it was not the time to let up and undo all the work they've done by being careless.

While he can't tell guard members to get the vaccine, Daugherty said he's had his shot and urged them to study the science and data rather than relying on information from social media.

At the end of the ceremony, Daugherty and Col. Kevin McMahan, the task force commander, presented medals or other commendations to 17 guard members for their actions during the pandemic assignments.

It was a standard military award ceremony, with Daugherty pinning a medal on a uniformed person's chest, shaking hands and saluting, with one additional step for the pandemic. McMahan followed Daugherty, and as the general moved on to the next soldier or airman in line, the colonel squirted hand sanitizer into their hands.

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