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Guard leaves site for PPE supplies

13-month mission helped distribute protective gear during the pandemic by Neal Earley | May 15, 2021 at 3:30 a.m.
Arkansas National Guardsmen unload a shipment of personal protective equipment at the Federal Surplus Warehouse on Sunday, April 12, 2020. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Thomas Metthe)

The Arkansas National Guard left for good Friday the state warehouse that's been home to millions of pieces of medical supplies, a "milestone" in the state's covid-19 fight as the virus' spread slows.

Helping the state distribute personal protective equipment was one of the first things the Arkansas Guard was tasked with early in the pandemic as many hospitals were low on supplies and the warehouse was low on manpower.

It's the end of a 13-month mission for the Guard, which helped distribute about 56 million pieces of PPE, Lt. Col. Brian Mason, a spokesman for the Arkansas National Guard, said.

"I think it's just another milestone, right," said Bob Oldham, another Guard spokesman. "It's hard to say where the finish line is even at -- where we're at in this race with the pandemic."

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Beginning in April 2020, four to six soldiers from the 77th Aviation Brigade began assisting the Arkansas Department of Emergency Management with loading and unloading trucks and storing supplies, but as more hospitals can purchase supplies without state assistance, guardsmen are no longer needed at the warehouse.

Staff from the Arkansas Department of Emergency Management will still be working on sending PPE to health care providers that need it, state officials said.

"The men and women of the Arkansas National Guard have been instrumental in supporting PPE distribution throughout the COVID-19 pandemic," Gov. Asa Hutchinson said in a statement. "With the demand for PPE at a manageable level now, the assistance of the National Guard is no longer needed on this matter, but the Guard assistance continues in other areas needed during the pandemic."

Thirty-three members of the National Guard are still assisting the state with vaccine distribution, management and administrative support. That's down from the peak number of 104 guardsmen deployed to pandemic-related duties in May 2020, according to Oldham.

Governors of all 50 states have activated their respective National Guard components at one point or another to assist with pandemic response in the past year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Hutchinson first activated the National Guard for pandemic-related duties in March 2020, tasking it with logistics and transportation and having guardsmen help the Arkansas Department of Health answer phone calls from the public and health care providers.

The National Guard has gone from assisting the Army Corps of Engineers with turning facilities into make-shift hospitals to assisting the Arkansas Department of Corrections with covid-19 screening.

Distribution of PPE was one of the earliest crises facing state leaders in the pandemic as health care providers around the nation sounded concerns about a shortage of gloves, masks and other medical supplies needed to shield them from the spread from covid-19.

In Spring 2020, states were scrambling for PPE as the federal government tried to distribute its stockpiles to states.

With the increase of PPE shipments to the Arkansas Department of Emergency Management, national guardsmen were needed with helping to stock and load supplies.

"You know this is what we do," Mason said. "So almost every person you talk to in the National Guard that served state active duty for covid-19, they're going to tell you, we live for this kind of stuff."


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