BISMARCK, N.D. — About 60 Air Force nurses are spending Thanksgiving at short-staffed hospitals across North Dakota as the coronavirus ravages the largely rural state.
Capt. Ronald Golemboski said he never expected to end up here fighting an unseen enemy after serving multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“It’s always hard,” he said. “But as members of the Department of Defense, we’re tasked to fight all enemies, and that’s whoever and wherever they may be — including this virus.”
Golemboski showed up for work this week at the Sanford Medical Center in Bismarck. Dr. Todd Schaffer said the hospital had just one open intensive care unit bed Tuesday morning.
North Dakota has one of the highest Covid-19 mortality rates in the world and the state’s positivity rate is more than 13 percent – three times higher than it was three month ago.
Earlier this month, Gov. Doug Burgum, a Republican, announced a mask mandate after previously resisting one. Bismarck Public Health Director Renae Moch said that while she was grateful for the governor’s decision, public policy in the state overall has lagged behind the virus’s spread.
“We could have avoided some of what we’re seeing right now if we would have done more stringent types of measures sooner,” she told NBC News.
The demand for testing in the state is rising sharply. Each week, 1,000 Covid-19 tests are administered at a massive drive-through testing site at Bismarck’s events center. It takes about two hours to conduct all the tests, but it’s taking 5 to 7 days to get the results — greatly reducing the usefulness of the testing in the first place.
Moch said the delay is because the state’s lab is focusing on testing for long-term care facilities, meaning the drive-through tests need to go to out-of-state labs.
“It’s very concerning for us from a public health perspective as we are going into the Thanksgiving holiday where people usually tend to gather together,” she said.
Among the nurses who have arrived here is 2nd Lt. Kathleen Alejandro, who is spending the holiday away from her husband in Florida. She’s treated Covid-19 patients while stationed at the Eglin Air Force Base, but this is her first deployment to help hospitals elsewhere.
“The most rewarding part about being a nurse is seeing that patient walk out of the hospital,” she said.
Air Force medical teams had previously been deployed to California and Texas. They’re expected to stay in North Dakota for at least a month supporting the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s efforts.
“Day in and day out, we start seeing the severity and the news, of course, and everything going on in our nation,” she said. “(I’m) just proud to be here to be able to answer that call.”