The duties of the Wisconsin National Guard keep expanding during the COVID-19 pandemic. In one community, nearly 20 Guard members are helping the local medical examiner with the dead.
In Dane County, the Air National Guard's 115th Fighter Wing Fatality Search and Recovery Team is assisting with the removal of decedents from their home or other location, any needed transportation of bodies to other counties, and with cleaning and decontamination. COVID-19 has killed almost two dozen people in Dane County. The Guard says it's helped with about 50 decedents in the region.
Tech. Sgt. Angela Krepline is a team leader with the mortuary operation. She's a nursing student when not on duty with the Guard.
"You have to have a sense of empathy and passion and professionalism to deal with these types of situations. For me, my takeaway is that it's great experience and knowledge knowing that when an individual does pass, the pride people have behind the scenes taking care of your loved ones is immense,” Krepline told WUWM.
Tech. Sgt. Sam Keizer is a planning leader and full-time Guard member. He says all mortuary assistance team members were asked ahead of time if they feel OK with the work. Keizer says everyone adjusts differently to it.
"It's a very emotional task, dealing with somebody's loved one. We've taken steps to make sure everyone feels comfortable. We've got a lot of support from local chaplains within the Wisconsin National Guard, in addition to other behavioral health specialists. So, we've been making sure they've been seeing the team on a regular basis. Any issues they have are talked about in private, in confidence if need be,” Keizer said.
As of Sunday, the statewide COVID-19 death toll is at 400 people — with the hope the increase in numbers will slow down, but no certainty that it will. Keizer says the Guard is ready for continuing mortuary duty, and can keep preparing new team members.
"If there are those in a military career field who are not familiar with the removal and handling of decedents, we are able to train them locally. So, the long-term game, I think we have a good plan, a good battle plan,” Keizer said.
Keizer says the Guard has reached out to agencies around Wisconsin to tell them the mortuary team is available to assist. In Milwaukee County, more than 210 have died, mainly in the city of Milwaukee. Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett says he has not asked the Guard for mortuary help.
However, Guard members are assisting with expanded local COVID-19 testing this week.
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