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CALDWELL — After Gov. Brad Little announced Nov. 13 that the Idaho National Guard would be mobilized to aid in the state’s coronavirus response, Southwest District Health officials sent a request for help to the Idaho Office of Emergency Management that same day.

Danielle Henry, a health education specialist, was part of that effort. Henry, who works as district’s logistics section chief and helps distribute personal protective equipment, said the request was approved almost immediately, based on its need. In mid-November, 10 guardsmen and two Army medics arrived at the Caldwell-based headquarters.

Henry said securing additional staff to combat the rising number of COVID-19 cases in the district, both from testing and contact tracing standpoints, has been incredibly difficult, as well as a statewide issue impacting other health districts and health care facilities. Help from the National Guard provided the district some breathing room.

“It has taken off an enormous weight,” she added.

Cory Cummings, who’s been with the Idaho National Guard for more than a year, said he decided to volunteer for the effort after the governor’s announcement.

Cummings, a former member of the U.S. Air Force for 11 years, said he’d been deployed several times to the Middle East, but he’d never served on a statewide mission before, prompting him to sign up for this opportunity.

“And then, I just got lucky enough to have been drawn for Southwest District Health,” he said.

Cummings, who helps oversee the team, said six guardsmen are helping with contact tracing and four with testing logistics, such as scheduling appointments, while the two Army medics are working with the district’s medical staff to administer tests.

Cummings said they’ve been able to almost double the district’s testing capacity and have diminished a portion of the backlogged coronavirus investigations.

While he never expected to be serving in this way as a member of the National Guard, Cummings said it’s been incredibly rewarding.

Deanne Payne, a registered nurse and a member of the health district’s liaison team, said the National Guard’s help has enabled them to improve the district’s overall COVID-19 response, and allowed them to focus on the other community services provided by the staff, such as nutrition, health education and immunizations. Many of the district’s employees have had to take on new roles amid the pandemic, and the additional help has allowed them to return focus to those day-to-day responsibilities, she added.

“It’s such a brilliant solution to the meet the need that we’ve had,” Payne said. “This is a significant coordinated effort.”

Henry echoed Payne’s sentiment, and said they are hiring new staff, and will take all the help they can get in the meantime.

Six additional guardsmen will be joining the district following Little’s most recent order on Dec. 11, which increased the statewide mobilization of from 100 to 250 and extended the aid through March 2021.

“Their work has been incredible for our agency,” Henry said. “We see so much value in our National Guard, and at the end of the day, I’m really proud of all the work being done at the district by every individual here.”

Olivia Heersink is the Canyon County public safety reporter. You can reach her at oheersink@idahopress.com, or by calling 208-465-8178. Follow her on Twitter @heersinkolivia.

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