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COVID-weary states call on National Guard members to get EMT training and deploy to nursing homes

Desiree D'Iorio
WSHU Public Radio
New York National Guard troops practice taking blood pressure readings on January 18, 2022, at the Farmingdale Armed Forces Reserve Center on Long Island. Guard members are training to become EMT’s in order to assist understaffed nursing homes throughout the state.

Army Specialist Robert Coleman has served in the New York National Guard for four years. Just a few weeks ago, he was working at his civilian job as a mail carrier for the U.S. Postal Service in Freeport on Long Island. Now, he’s one of 80 soldiers in a pilot program that will train him to become a certified EMT so he can care for nursing home residents.

For Coleman, this is just his latest pandemic relief mission on a list that keeps growing longer.

“At the start of COVID, we were all over the state delivering PPE, masks, everything,” Coleman said about his recent deployments. “Then last year we're doing vaccinations. Now this year we’re training to be EMTs in the field. It's a lot. We've done everything you can think of.”

The troops practice how to perform CPR, take blood pressure readings and identify patients who may be in shock. They study anatomy and physiology.

“It's intense,” Coleman said about the 10-hour days of PowerPoints and hands-on demonstrations. “[It’s] a lot of information. It's someone's life that's in your hands.”

The EMT-training pilot program is the latest example of unusual assignments for a National Guard that typically deploys overseas or responds to hurricanes and floods. But as the pandemic continues to strain the nation’s health care workforce, the National Guard has increasingly been called on to bridge the gaps — a sign of how desperate some states are for trained health care workers.

Major Michael O’Hagan, a public affairs officer for the New York National Guard, said the EMT program is non-traditional — but not surprising — as the third year of the pandemic continues to tax the health care system.

“That's just been a continuation from the very first calling to now, how it's evolved into multiple different mission sets that are not traditional to what we would usually do,” O’Hagan said, noting that the program will ultimately improve readiness and create a more adaptable force overall.

“Having the amount of servicemembers underneath the New York National Guard umbrella that are going to come away as EMT-certified after this, certainly is a huge benefit for us; to be able to have personnel that are that much more medically qualified, whether to cover on mission stateside, natural disasters and on the civil support type of mission, or downrange overseas.”

The expanded skill set can also help troops to further their civilian careers, which is part of the reason why Army Specialist Coleman volunteered for the mission.

“It would be good on a resume, first and foremost,” Coleman said, adding that he’s currently in the process of applying to be a police officer with the NYPD or Port Authority.

On Jan. 18, Coleman and his fellow Guardsmen were almost two weeks into training at Farmingdale Armed Forces Reserve Center on Long Island. Andy Bershad, CEO and founder of Flying Aces Enterprises & Consulting, is running the rapid four-week program. He runs similar programs for the NYPD.

It’s Bershad’s job to train the troops to pass the state exam for EMT certification. He said they’re model students.

“We did a question and answer this morning, and I was even taken aback and impressed [by] how much of the information they returned, and a lot of the time, retained,” Bershad said. “A lot of time it’s letting the student realize, ‘look at what you did.’”

Bershad said the course is designed to instill confidence.

“I tell my students, ‘when somebody is hurt, I want you pushing people out of the way [to] get up there,’” Bershad said.

Other states have also been turning to their National Guards to help with worker shortages, like substitute teachers in New Mexico, and bus drivers in Massachusetts.

Minnesota and Wisconsin are training their Guards as certified nurse assistants, reflecting a survey published last June by the American Health Care Association and National Center for Assisting Living that found 94% of nursing homes were understaffed.

New York has more than 600 nursing homes. As soon as the Guardsmen pass their EMT certification exams, the plan is to quickly deploy them to those that need staff.

Army Specialist Coleman said he’s worried about the exam, but confident in Bershad’s instruction.

“We're here to support the state,” Coleman said. “Whatever the state needs.”

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.

Desiree reports on the lives of military service members, veterans, and their families for WSHU as part of the American Homefront project. Born and raised in Connecticut, she now calls Long Island home.