Guard soldiers train in Austin to help beleaguered Minnesota care facilities
In less than eight days, 300 soldiers will get 75 hours of medical training.
AUSTIN — Eight months after returning home to Rochester from an 11-month deployment to Africa, Minnesota National Guardsman Staff Sgt. James Jeffries-Sherwood is preparing to deploy again.
Although Jeffries-Sherwood doesn’t yet know exactly where he’ll be deployed, it’s a foregone conclusion it won’t take him as far from his wife and two kids as that duty did.
Jeffries-Sherwood is one of 15 Guard members getting nursing assistant certification this week at Riverland Community College. He’s one of more than 300 Minnesota National Guard members who are training to become certified nurse assistants. Their jobs will be to relieve long-term and nursing care facilities where staff are short or stretched thin in part because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Gov. Tim Walz last week ordered members of the Guard to deploy to long-term care facilities around the state.
In the span of a week, the Guard members will receive 75 hours of training and test for certification.
For most of the soldiers and airmen, CNA training wasn’t part of their guard training nor their civilian vocation, said Col. Brian Douty, the Guard's officer in charge of the Guard’s COVID-19 missions.
Deploying the Guard’s already-trained CNAs would mean pulling staff out of some of the facilities in need of relief, Douty said.
"We don’t want to rob Peter to pay Paul," Douty said.
Jeffries-Sherwood volunteered for the training and deployment. He said it would not only add to his infantry medical training but will also give him skills he may need to help care for family members in the future.
Dr. Kara De La Fosse, director of Riverland Community College’s nursing assistant and home healthcare education programs, is teaching the course. She said she was initially uncertain about the ambitious timeline to educate the Guard members by Dec. 5. Their actions since classes began Sunday showed her otherwise, she said.
"I was initially concerned when this is normally a month-long course," she said. "They’re sharp, they’re disciplined and they’re really picking it up."
Jeffries-Sherwood had similar praise for the instruction and De La Fosse’s experience.
"When we’re doing the lab portions, she’s showing us how she actually does things," he said. "We’re being well taught."
In class Monday, De La Fosse used mannequins in medical beds to train students to give bed baths to patients. She urged them to pay attention to details and the steps in the process for certification testing.
"When you empty, rinse and dry the bowl, that’s all one," she said. "If you don’t dry it, you won’t get credit for any of that step even if you drained it and rinsed it properly."
The 12-hour days of training haven’t yet proved daunting, Jeffries-Sherwood said.
"I honestly think it’s time-critical," he said. "We don’t have time to be moseying along."
Riverland is one of 16 institutions training the Guard members. While the Guard members are getting certified, Douty is working with the Minnesota Department of Health to survey all of the state’s long-term care facilities to see what their staff needs are. The newly-trained CNAs will be deployed to those facilities. Douty said Guard leaders will work to deploy members closer to where they live where possible.
"But that depends on the facilities that we’re asked to support," he said.
Douty acknowledged it’s still a sacrifice for the members, employers and families.
Jeffries-Sherwood said his wife is supportive of the mission.
"She knows what the significance of the need is," he said. "She sees the bigger picture and that I’m supporting the community."
His children, 8 and 4 years old, might need a bit more convincing, he said.
Walz’s office hasn’t said how long these deployments will last. Douty said federal funds are available through April 1 for this COVID-19 deployment.
However, Douty said state officials are looking well beyond that.
People who receive temporary nursing assistant and certified nursing assistant training for these deployments will be the foundation of a medically-trained response team.
Douty said building a team for widespread medical support gives the guard the ability to deploy trained members without pulling guard members who already work at medical facilities in their civilian jobs.
"This will put us in a good position in the future," he said.