BISMARCK —As coronavirus cases climbed steadily across the Midwest in early September, Capt. Aaron Robinson got a message at his home in the Minneapolis suburbs. Over in North Dakota, the growing tally of new virus cases was becoming too much for the state's Health Department to manage. They needed help.

Robinson, who went to college at North Dakota State University, doesn’t live in North Dakota anymore but has remained a part-time soldier in the state's National Guard since his college days. And as he learned from his Guard unit in September, North Dakota was scaling up its COVID-19 testing and contact tracing to respond to an increasingly burdensome volume of virus cases.

For Robinson, supporting the pandemic response in North Dakota meant sidelining his work as the owner of a construction business and stepping away from his pregnant wife and two young children to take up quarters in a Fargo hotel room. But after talking the decision over with his wife, Robinson decided to volunteer.

"I'm helping out the state of North Dakota in their time of need," he said. "It’s an honor to be a part of it."

Like other Guard chapters across the country, the North Dakota National Guard has provided a much-needed assist to state officials in the pandemic, executing a disaster response unlike any the division had handled before. Composed of reserve members of the U.S. Army and Air Force in every state, the National Guard stands in constant readiness for governors’ call-ups, often to police public demonstrations or to mitigate sudden natural disasters. Typically, their operations are discrete — intense, concentrated missions.

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North Dakota National Guard soldiers assist in a COVID-19 testing event at the Bismarck Event Center ahead of Thanksgiving on Tuesday, Nov. 24. Kyle Martin / The Forum
North Dakota National Guard soldiers assist in a COVID-19 testing event at the Bismarck Event Center ahead of Thanksgiving on Tuesday, Nov. 24. Kyle Martin / The Forum

But the National Guard's COVID-19 response has hardly mirrored its previous jobs. Like the pandemic itself, the Guard's activation has stretched on for months longer than most leaders predicted when the first positive virus test results turned up in North Dakota in March.

And on Thursday, Nov. 19, the North Dakota Guard hit a record 67,495 personnel days, the sum total of guardsmen workdays, surpassing the 67,264 personnel days logged during the 2011 Souris Valley flood response. Their operation has stretched on for nearly 260 consecutive days, long outlasting the more-condensed 142 days of flood work in 2011.

Col. Tad Schauer, director of military response for the North Dakota National Guard, said while disasters like floods can call for elaborate, hyper-coordinated response missions, the achievement of the Guard's pandemic operation is one of endurance.

"It didn’t require a lot of equipment, and it didn’t require a lot of personnel, but we’ve sustained this over a long period of time," Schauer said. "I think that’s the difference here."

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During the devastating Red River flood of 1997, guardsmen evacuated residents and fought back floodwaters with sandbag walls. In 2011, Guard troops executed a geographically sprawling response to the Souris Valley flood of 2011. More recently, over 500 guardsmen activated to aid law enforcement in the Dakota Access Pipeline protests of 2016 and 2017.

As many states have pulled levers for extra support staff this year, the National Guard has become a staple of pandemic response efforts across the country, with the federal government renewing a Federal Emergency Management Agency order to foot most of the Guard's deployment bill through the end of this year.

In this marathon activation, Robinson serves as a newly minted linchpin of the Guard's operation. Relatively new on the job, Robinson quickly moved through the ranks of the National Guard's contact tracing effort, a process that the Guard calls "COVID-mapping," as other soldiers stepped down to return to their civilian work.

Now, he directs the COVID-mapping operation, a team of about 60 guardsmen and women, from his Fargo hotel room. And as the Department of Health has consistently reported more than 1,000 new cases per day over the past month, Robinson's team puts out between 250 and 300 case calls a day.

A COVID-19 test is administered at a pre-Thanksgiving testing event in Bismarck on Tuesday, Nov. 24. Kyle Martin / The Forum
A COVID-19 test is administered at a pre-Thanksgiving testing event in Bismarck on Tuesday, Nov. 24. Kyle Martin / The Forum

In just two months on the job, the core of Robinson's mission has changed dramatically. Overwhelmed by the volume of new virus cases in mid-October, the Health Department announced that it was asking COVID-19 positive individuals to do their own contact tracing, a more limited approach that they have continued through the surge since then.

Even with this scaled-back version of contact tracing, the calls can be draining.

"Of course, you have the people who don’t believe this is real, and they can be snippy," Robinson said.

More common are hard conversations with the vulnerable elderly, cases that Robinson said have sometimes been hard to keep tracing because the individual is hospitalized by the time of the second call.

"We’re contacting some of the 70-, 80-, 90-year-old people who are at risk. They’re definitely fearful," he said. “We’re the first one to be in contact with them when they're hearing this news.”

Some 680 guardsmen and women have assisted in the pandemic response in North Dakota since their initial activation on March 16. The number of active working guardsmen has fluctuated, but Schauer said it has averaged around 270 at any given time, with their work focused on staffing the state's large-scale testing and contact tracing efforts.

Senior Airman Rachel McGrady directs car traffic during a pre-Thanksgiving testing event Tuesday, Nov. 24, at the Bismarck Event Center. Kyle Martin / The Forum
Senior Airman Rachel McGrady directs car traffic during a pre-Thanksgiving testing event Tuesday, Nov. 24, at the Bismarck Event Center. Kyle Martin / The Forum

But the Guard has provided more than boots on the ground. Some members of the reserve military branch have also filled prominent seats in North Dakota's pandemic war rooms. Adj. Gen. Alan Dohrmann, who oversees North Dakota's Guard forces, sits on Unified Command, the state's multiagency pandemic response team, along with Gov. Doug Burgum and Chief Operating Officer Tammy Miller. Dr. Andrew Stahl, who served as the chief medical officer of the department of health for a two-month stint this summer, came into that role following more than a decade of service in the state National Guard's Medical Corps.

Still, the Guard's involvement in pandemic response has been narrow in scope. The state National Guard enlists some 4,000 people, but Schauer said the potential for total deployments is significantly smaller than that. While it’s easy to dispatch more people for jobs like data entry, the Guard may not have the assets to address other, more specialized needs. A substantial portion of the Guard has medical training, but some members already work in the medical field in their civilian jobs, and Schauer said the Guard has been careful not to poach workers out of the state's short bench of health care workers.

Earlier in the pandemic, the Guard also helped to power the Health Department's team of couriers, which crisscrosses the state delivering testing kits, personal protective equipment and other supplies from the state medical cache in Bismarck. That side of the Guard's operation has recently been phased out as the Department of Health has staffed up exponentially, a consequence of a system designed for limited Guard involvement.

"The role of the Guard is to supplement staff but not to be basically carrying on those missions," said Tim Wiedrich, chief of the Health Department’s emergency preparedness and response section, explaining that the military force is meant to provide support, but not replacement, to the Health Department's pandemic response. "It was necessary to build up the Health Department so that those missions could be carried out by actual Health Department staff."

Though federal funding for Guard activation is set to clock out on Dec. 31, President-elect Joe Biden has pledged to ensure federal payment for the Guard's pandemic support once he is in office. Regardless of those decisions in Washington, Schauer said his soldiers and airmen are prepared to stay on the job and to roll into "state active duty" if federal funding expires.

And if the outbreak persists in North Dakota, Schauer said the Guard still has bandwidth to help in certain targeted missions.

"The North Dakota National Guard would meet any tasking that the governor asks us to do, and if we run out of capacity, then we would go outside the state to source the additional capacity needed," he said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Adam Willis, a Report for America corps member, at awillis@forumcomm.com.