06/05/2020 | Press release | Distributed by Public on 06/05/2020 06:43
While adjusting the volume on her walkie-talkie to compensate for both a facial mask and the constant drizzle, Army 2nd Lt. Megan E. Zurliene pauses for a reply over the channel from one of her troops. Patiently waiting, she paces around the operations center set up at the Quinault Indian Nation Reservation. When the soldier finally responds, she quickly replies with up-to-date instructions, then shoves the walkie-talkie into her pocket, moving on to the next task.
As the officer in charge of 15 Washington National Guardsmen, Zurliene's natural enthusiasm is well suited for the demands of the COVID-19 testing site on the reservation. Her team is testing more than 100 people per day, working long hours in hazmat suits, all while safeguarding those they test, as well as themselves.
''The goal is to test over 2,000 people, which means we'll end up testing every member of the tribe,'' Zurliene said May 20, the third day of full testing. ''The first two days we focused on testing the tribe's first responders and casino staff, and we ended up working nearly 18 hours each day.''
The COVID-19 test results take about three days to come back, so having the staff at the casino along with essential workers tested first was the initial focus for the National Guard testing staff. By the fourth day, they had completed almost 450 tests.
''Everyone out here on our team has been working at one of the drive-up test sites around the state, whether that was at Yakima, Aberdeen, Spokane or Bremerton, so this walk-up test site is flowing even better,'' she said. ''This mobile test site is amazing because, at the end of the day, you can pack, go somewhere else the next [day] and be right where it's needed.''
In the two months since the ''Stay Home, Stay Healthy'' proclamation issued by Washington Gov. Jay R. Inslee on March 23, the guardsmen have been building on lessons learned in the field as the pandemic spread throughout the state. The guardsmen also bring with them varied skill sets from their civilian professions, and they have been adapting on a day-by-day basis.
''In my civilian job, I run a dog day care in Tacoma, so it's completely different than what I am doing here,'' Zurliene said. ''So running the business there means having over 125 dogs a day and working with their owners, who treat them as members of their family. Interestingly enough, that experience really helps now being the officer in charge here. I manage everyone in a similar way; it means organizing the team we have, it means coordinating the site, and getting the civilian side to mesh with the National Guard.''
This type of teamwork was critical to forming the relations between the Washington National Guard and the Quinault Indian Nation. The foundation began when the tribe first requested assistance through the county and state emergency management process in early April.
''We presented the proposal to the tribal council to have the guard come out to provide assistance with training our staff to test our members,'' said M'Liss Dewald, functioning as the planning chief for the incident command team with the Quinault Indian Nation. In her full-time job, she is the tribe's education manager, specializing in elementary and post-secondary education.
Prior to the arrival of the testing team, Dewald said, three subject matter experts from the guard spent nearly two weeks at the reservation.
''As a tribal nation, we are always cautionary about moving into a relationship with outside governmental agencies, to include the military,'' Dewald said.
''They went through our current testing site and gave us tips, feedback and provided training with our whole staff,'' Dewald explained. ''They gave us a very good education on what's 'hot, warm and cold,' and this included running two different testing models for feedback and additional specialized training to the staff. It was quite a blessing having them on site for those two weeks.''
It also helped to have the Grays Harbor testing site available for tribal leaders to come and observe the guard's process in Aberdeen. More than 500 COVID-19 tests were performed with the mobile testing site.
''Between the two experiences we had with the National Guard, and how culturally sensitive they were to our needs, it was really easy to ask for this request for assistance,'' Dewald said.
This created the historic opportunity for the guard to begin testing on the Quinault Indian Nation Reservation in mid-May.
''I wanted all our members to try and interact with everyone coming to the testing site,'' Zurliene said. ''To really create a pleasant, more personable experience, because it can be a bit intimidating at first, seeing every one of us in the [hazmat] suits and all the extra personal protective equipment.''
The trio of guardsmen working the shift were aware of this as tribal families arrived at the site. As members showed up to the testing station for their appointment times, they moved through the site with minimal delay and difficulty.
''The tribal leaders wanted to give their families that extra level of reassurance,'' she said. ''When they go back to work, they'll know that they aren't harming anyone they might be working with and that they are safe to come back home at the end of the day.''
Dewald said that building this two-way street has been contingent on a level of respect and mutual understanding from which both sides have learned.
''It's truly a partnership, and that's really because of the leadership that's running the testing site,'' Dewald said. ''They include us in the process. ''I would encourage other nations to look into having the guard assist in situations like this, because it's been a really good experience for us.''
Touring the site on the fourth day of operations, Army Brig. Gen. Bryan Grenon, the joint task force commander, met with tribal leaders while seeing first hand how his troops were faring with the mission.
''The best thing about this current operation is that you are learning how we can help you not just now but also for other emergencies,'' Grenon said to Quinault Tribal Chairman Fawn Sharp and Vice Chairman Tyson Johnston.
''We've appreciated the assistance more than anything,'' Johnston said. ''I have heard nothing but good feedback. It's allowing us to do all kinds of things from protecting our public health, to helping our nation restart its economy. You are helping us in a time of need.''
With a budding trust, Sharp asked Grenon about the guard's structure for emergency operations at the Quinault reservation. ''Is this type of response typical to the 'one weekend a month' the National Guard prepares for?'' Sharp asked.
''The guard has both the federal mission and a separate state mission,'' Grenon said, detailing both the pandemic response and preparing for future emergencies.
''We work for the governor on national disasters from earthquakes, floods and fighting forest fires,'' Grenon continued. ''We're responsible for developing the Cascadia Subduction Zone plan, which would not only affect Washington State, but south to Oregon and up to British Columbia.''
This is exactly what the Quinault Tribe has been preparing for with their lands adjoining the Pacific Ocean and tributary inland waterways.
''Here we have been preparing for an earthquake and a subsequent tsunami, but we ended up with this outbreak,'' Sharp said. ''It turns out to be a dry run on how we can work together in emergency situations. We're grateful that we are able to establish a relationship, and to get to know each other now. I have a feeling that this is not going to be last time we may need the National Guard's help.''
Whatever future success the Washington National Guard will have with the tribe, the seeds of success have been planted during this response to the coronavirus outbreak.
''Three months ago I was planning a vacation for June,'' Zurliene said. ''Like most people, never in my life would I have thought I would be doing anything like this COVID-19 response.''
(Air Force Master Sgt. John Hughel is assigned to the Washington Air National Guard.)