As confirmed cases of COVID-19 skyrocket across the nation and in the state, the Minnesota National Guard remains trained, prepared and waiting in the wings to intervene in the most significant world health crisis in perhaps a century.
Lt. Col. Patrick Cornwell, deputy garrison commander of Camp Ripley, said the military installation has largely grinded to a snail’s crawl in many respects, just as civilian communities outside its borders increasingly self-isolate, restrict travel and social distance to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
While they’re considered “mission critical” — or, essential in civilian nomenclature — soldiers are subject to the same health guidelines and the outbreak has canceled a number of training initiatives for the local Guard and visiting units that take place at Camp Ripley every year.
“Physical fitness is a big part of our day to day life here on campus,” said Cornwell, who noted many enlisted and civilian employees of the camp are now working from home and subject to a daily multi-point health screening if they enter the facilities. “We maintain our physical fitness and, unfortunately because of this, we've had to close our gyms, and there's no organized physical training.”
“It’s pretty bare,” Cornwell added Thursday, April 2, of the camp’s health facilities. “We’ve been told to continue normal operations and to work in conjunction with the state and the governor’s task force. … We’re certainly always engaged with our community relations and we appreciate the community support. We've seen a lot of outreach from the community.”
As of now, there are no known or suspected cases of COVID-19 at Camp Ripley, Cornwell said.
Across the state and in St. Paul, Gov. Tim Walz has called for a team of roughly 100 Minnesota National Guard personnel to work hand-in-hand with the state’s administration, health care agencies and a litany of municipalities as fears of a more significant outbreak — and an overtaxed health care system — begin to mount.
Sgt. Jeff Dahlen, the Interagency Operations Noncommissioned Officer in charge, told the Dispatch he’s working in the early stages of a rapidly evolving situation down in St. Paul.
“The Minnesota Guard has just over 100 personnel supporting the ongoing COVID-19 response efforts,” Dahlen said Friday, April 3. “Some of those efforts are, or were, helping with planning or helping with logistics or some general other support agencies in coordination with the state Emergency Operations Center.”
Describing their work as “filling gaps as they appear where people are being overwhelmed,” Dahlen said the Minnesota National Guard is acting as a sort of reserve, with the ability to quickly move in and prop up local agencies in a variety of capacities ranging from advising law enforcement, providing transportation, or moving supplies, among others.
This is evidenced by their logs published daily, which illustrate members of the Minnesota National Guard were performing maintenance on oxygen machines on April 2, or transporting vital personal protective equipment — like gloves or masks — from a storehouse in Camp Ripley to a distribution center in St. Paul on March 22, as examples.
That’s much of what they’ve been doing, Dahlen noted, either aiding in the planning process, or providing the muscle and hardware to transport equipment and supplies in rapid fashion where they’re needed. While the Minnesota National Guard’s participation has been smaller in scope — as of yet — compared to other states, the Guard serves at the discretion of the governor, Dahlen said, and the state’s crisis response remains in the early stages of planning and mobilization.
“As we move forward in this, we will stand ready to support the state's needs and respond as needed,” Dahlen said. “In our lifetime, we’ve never seen a response to a pandemic at this level, so there's a lot of stuff in the planning phase right now to be able to provide support. We’re planning. We’re training. And we’re preparing for emergency response missions with local, state and federal partners.”
Maj. Gen. Jon Jensen, the adjutant general of the Minnesota National Guard, stated in a news release the Guard remains ready and able to fight COVID-19 should it start to overtax agencies across the state.
"The Minnesota National Guard has more than 100 personnel supporting ongoing COVID-19 response efforts including planning, logistics and support to state agencies in coordination with the State Emergency Operations Center,” Jensen said. “We remain ready to respond, as needed, to assist Minnesotans.”