FAYETTEVILLE — Many of the members of Georgia National Guard's Alpha Company returned from deployment in Afghanistan not long ago.
They expected to have some time with their families, but after the COVID-19 pandemic tore through nursing homes across the country and state, they are among the thousands of guardsmen activated to fight the spread of the virus.
Now, in hot plastic suits and face shields, armed with disinfectants, the group scrubs every inch of a handful of nursing homes as part of the state’s infection control efforts.
“For us who were deployed, when we were over there was Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome and other bad stuff,” Cpl. Devin Jimmerson, 24, said. “We were taking malaria pills there. So it’s weird to come back home and almost see the same.”
At the beginning of the month, Gov. Brian Kemp and Georgia National Guard Adjutant Gen. Tom Carden deployed the guardsmen to help mitigate spread in assisted living facilities and nursing homes with COVID-19 cases.
Condor Health Lafayette nursing home in Fayetteville is one of eight homes their battalion visits almost weekly — and by far the biggest. The 77,000-square-foot assisted living facility houses more than 120 residents.
Condor Health has avoided a resident testing positive but is still on the state's list of infected nursing homes after one employee tested positive early during the pandemic. According to the state, nearly 290 nursing homes have reported cases — 2,397 residents have tested positive and 358 have died as of April 23.
The employee who tested positive at Condor Health was immediately quarantined — the facility avoiding outbreak. But administrators still face the moral dilemma of whether or not they should continue to admit patients and risk widespread infection.
Carmen Solano, administrator at the facility, said the nursing home is “blessed" to be case free in the thick of the pandemic, but it is not lost on staff the impact it could have making its way through the home's halls.
“What do you do? Do you admit or do you don’t,” she said. “Because it's been proven that as soon as it gets to the nursing homes it spreads so quickly and the health of the residents are so compromised that's why they're here.”
The facility has not started turning away patients yet, she said, but the decision doesn’t come without concern.
“My outside may look calm,” Freda Butler, director of nursing at Condor Health, said. “But inside, I can just scream.”
Butler said she and the staff try keeping positive so panic doesn’t extend to patients — many of whom still are confused why they can’t see their families.
Solano has been working in long-term care since 1994 and can only slightly compare the coronavirus outbreak to a week-long quarantine due to norovirus — even then, the brief shutdown separated families and their loved ones.
Condor Health has two women older than 100, she said, one of whom begs her daughter to come visit over FaceTime.
“Her daughter says ‘Mom, I can’t,’” Solano said, “but she doesn’t understand.”
As the guardsmen pass through the hallways in their full chemical control gear, residents wave. As they clean the rooms, patients chat with them about the day.
They're happy to have the company, Solano said.
The main challenge the team faces is confused residents, 2nd Lt. Shane Large said. Only once did the team unintentionally startle a patient in a nursing home. A Holocaust survivor terrified of the suited men.
“It’s not overkill,” Jimmerson said. “But it is spooky to see us in these suits.”
Spc. Hunter Sorenson, 25, said he often tells residents he’s killing a bug and reassures them they’re safe in their rooms — the team is there to keep it that way.
“In a matter of a very short amount of time for the Georgia Guard, we went from a full ready combat deployment to now those same soldiers are going across the state,” he said.
Spc. Wesley Oliver, 27, was supposed to get married at the end of May, which he said is probably not on the table given the uncertainty of when they’ll stop cleaning.
Most of the guardsmen went from spending quarantine with their loved ones to bunking in a hotel to avoid risk of infecting their families. Oliver said being in the National Guard, you have to quickly “flip that switch” from civilian life to Guard life.
“We are protecting the most vulnerable,” he said. “And these people really are the most vulnerable. I think that's pretty awesome that we get to do that.”