National Guardsmen perform testing at Hamblen Health Department

Tennessee National Guardsmen are currently helping at the Hamblen County Health Department. From left to right, Sgt. Charles Ayers, Spc. John Ayres and Spc. Levi Peels.

Spc. John Ayres is on the front lines of the battle.

The Tennessee National Guardsman is facing an enemy that cannot be seen. The Army medic, though, dons his suit, gloves, mask and goggles and takes specimens every day at the Hamblen County Health Department.

But as doctors and nurses are increasingly becoming sick from the novel coronavirus, or COVID-19, he sees a greater good of helping the public and possibly saving people.

“To help them out is more than worth it,” he said.

The Tennessee National Guard currently has three medics stationed at the health department. In the Lakeway Area, there are three more medics stationed in Greene County.

They do not know how long their assignment may last as the virus keeps spreading across the Lakeway Area and Tennessee.

Their roles at the Hamblen County Health Department are to conduct testing and to inventory the donations of the personal protective equipment arriving routinely from the public. This equipment, or PPE, can save lives of first responders, doctors and nurses fighting COVID-19.

This is the first week of testing for the team, which arrived in Hamblen County on Monday after going through training at the East Tennessee Regional Health Office in Knoxville last week.

The danger is real for those first line responders – a doctor in Greeneville tested positive for COVID-19 this week.

But, the national guardsmen say they are more than equipped to deal with invisible enemy.

“We’re following the strictest CDC (Center for Disease Control) guidelines,” said Sgt. Charles Ayers, team leader for the medics.

Ayers is close to home. He lives in Talbott and has been here for more than three decades. In his life outside the National Guard, he works construction.

The other two medics are here from other parts of the state trying to help people and save people they don’t know.

Ayres is from Cookeville, Tennessee and works at a tile company. Peels came here from Cleveland, Tennessee and works at a hospital.

They said they have received extensive training in the guard working with decontamination and events such as what is happening across the country.

Ayers said the medic training has helped and they try to focus on the mission at hand and not on the fact they are using their training here in Tennessee and not deployed overseas to another country.

“You try not to think about that,” Ayers said. “You train for whatever mission comes to us.”

The testing is a two-person operation conducted outside the health department building. The nursing staff at the health department first assess those being tested on whether they have the symptoms of coronavirus – coughing, fever or shortness of breath.

If the person matches these criteria, then Ayres takes the test using a nasal swab. The tests are then sent to a laboratory for confirmation.

Ayres and Peels make the two-man team that takes the test. When someone pulls up for the testing, then he dons two pairs of gloves, a white Tyvek suit, an N-95 mask, a surgical mask and eyewear.

Ayers said the team is glad to help.

“We assist them any way we can,” he said.

The other part of their mission is to make sure they help collect the PPE and distribute it to the proper persons that need it the most. They’ve collected masks, gowns, gloves and hand sanitizer from Morristown fire departments and the National Guard armory.

“It’s been a considerable amount of PPE,” Ayers said.

He said he’s not surprised by the amount of donations coming in.

“Hamblen County has always been a giving community,” he said.

Sherrie Montgomery, director of the Hamblen County Health Department, said her and her staff are thankful for the Guard’s presence.

“We’re very appreciative of what they are doing and that they are here,” she said.