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National Guard COVID relief team finishes tour of duty

MORGANTOWN — After six weeks of serving in critical support roles at J.W. Ruby Memorial Hospital, the 25 Air and Army National Guard members assigned to the mission have departed for the final time.

As they exited Friday, more than two dozen employees holding blue and gold pompoms and signs of appreciation lined the path.

“It was a blessing to have ‘em,” President of West Virginia University Hospitals Michael Grace said.  “You know, they became part of the WVU Medicine family.”

Staff Sgt. Katlyn Valencia with the 167th Airlift Wing said it was a really nice experience and the staff became like her family. 

“Even the patients, you get close to them as well,” she said.

The guard members were assigned to Ruby after being activated by Gov. Jim Justice to help hospitals across the state which were dealing with an increased COVID-19 caseload because of the omicron variant.

While at Ruby, Valencia was part of the transport team, which meant she took patients around the hospital to various scans, tests, surgeries, or even escorting them out when the patient is discharged.

“We actually are the, I like to say, the veins of the hospital,” she said. “We help things keep moving. So that way the end result is the patient is good in the wheelchair getting ready to go home.”

Grace said those non-medical roles are essential members of the hospital’s care team.

“I don’t use the term employees, I use care team members,” Grace said. “Because even if you’re cleaning a patient’s room, you’re escorting a patient from point A to point B, you’re helping visitors get to where they need to go, you’re part of the process. So behind the scenes in a hospital, there’s a lot of different types of people with all different types of careers that make the place function.”

Their departure coincided with a drop in cases, Grace said. At the peak of omicron, the hospital saw more than 100 cases a day; now it’s down to the low 40s.

While the guard was at the hospital, extra personnel were hired which, combined with the drop in cases, has helped with staff shortages. However, Grace said they still need a lot of staff.

“They helped out, but their departure in no way decreases our need for good people. WVU Medicine’s careers website has all kinds of opportunities for people interested in working for a wonderful health system,” Grace said.

Some are even considering employment with the hospital, Grace said.

Spc. Adrien Evangelista of the Army National Guard, with the 201st Field Artillery Regiment out of Morgantown, is one of those seeking a job there.

Evangelista said he sent a resume out and is in touch with a recruiter. He hopes to get a job working in logistics, emergency medical services, or as a lab tech.

While at Ruby, Evangelista worked in the ER as a runner and sorting linen at an off-site facility.

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