As hospitals struggle to stay afloat during a third wave of COVID-19 cases, they are finding relief from active military troops who have deployed to some of the neediest medical facilities across the country.
In January, President Biden announced that a thousand military medical personnel would be deployed across the country in phases. The Pentagon said in late January that it was sending medical teams to several cities where civilian medical centers are strained by a rise in COVID-19 cases, including Minneapolis, Cleveland, and Lewiston, Maine. Troops also are working in six Michigan hospitals.
Those latest deployments are in addition to several that were already underway before Biden’s order. Throughout the winter, deployments brought about 400 medical military personnel to hospitals in Colorado, Pennsylvania, New Mexico, Arizona, and other states.
One of those hospitals is the Yuma Regional Medical Center in the southwest corner of Arizona. As the hospital experienced winter surges of COVID-19 cases, Chief of Nursing Deb Aders decided to apply for military aid.
“You have to go through your local health department, which goes through your state department, and basically tell the need in our story,” says Aders, who applied for the aid in October.
Part of Yuma’s unique story is its geographic location and influx of seasonal visitors. She said many vacationers come from Canada in search of sun, while others come from California for recreation because Arizona’s COVID restrictions are less strict. In addition, the Yuma area has a large migrant community working on farms.
Coupled with the highly contagious Omicron variant, Aders says the community transmission rate is so high that it’s not unusual to have ninety hospital staff members out sick on any given day. That is creating a huge strain on nurses.
“COVID is trying. It’s a beast of its own,” said nurse Jessica Muniz, who has been working in the COVID unit since the beginning of the pandemic. “We do get burnt out, and we feel that.”
On December 29, a team of 15 military personnel from Eglin Air Force Base in Florida arrived in Yuma to assist the hospital staff. Tech Sergeant Franklin Cordon is part of the team who, within 48 hours of being tasked for the mission, were on a plane to Yuma.
“I think we had a few days turnaround to get our stuff ready,” Cordon said.
While Cordon didn’t expect his next deployment to send him to the American Southwest, he said the mission isn’t a far stretch from how he spends his days at the base hospital in Florida.
“I work in a ward as well taking care of COVID patients,” he said. “So it’s not too different for us, honestly.”
Since arriving at the hospital, the military team has been working side-by-side with hospital staff to help alleviate some of the stress brought on by the surge of patients.
“We just tell them what we need done,” Muniz said. “So it’s good relief that we’re feeling from the military support.”
Aders, the chief of nursing, said the troops were initially scheduled to remain in Yuma for about a month. But the hospital received an extension from the federal government. Those requests go through the Federal Emergency Management Agency or the Department of Health and Human Services, which work with the Department of Defense to provide service members.
The extension means the Air Force personnel will remain in place into February. Aders anticipates that her hospital hasn’t seen the worst of the Omicron surge.
This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.