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A call to duty: Dental professor leads Texas Air National Guard medics at COVID-19 testing sites

Need for more COVID-19 testing sites lands guardsman in El Paso
View of drive-through testing site with cars lined up around the parking lot

For 22 years, Karl Woodmansey, DDS, MA, clinical assistant professor in endodontics at the Texas A&M University College of Dentistry, envisioned performing dental work somewhere fascinating overseas in his role with the Texas Air National Guard. All roads led instead to West Texas, where he’s been supervising medics at COVID-19 testing sites since late May.

Woodmansey, along with numerous Air National Guard and Texas Army National Guard teams, was activated as part of a federal and state emergency issued by Gov. Greg Abbott, who was authorized by the U.S. president to call up the state National Guard in response to COVID-19. As an officer in charge for “Joint Mission,” Woodmansey oversees one of eight teams at various sites around El Paso.

“I tried to get activated a whole bunch of times to go to cool places. This is as cool as I’ve gotten,” he said.

However, “cool” does not exactly describe the conditions he’s been working in. Each morning, Woodmansey’s five-medic team sets up a small canopy, usually near a sweltering-hot concrete parking lot as temperatures soar past 100. Medics in personal protective equipment—masks, gowns, gloves and face shields—are out in the sun most of the day as they tend to car after car of patients possibly infected with the virus that causes COVID-19.

Karl Woodsmansey dressed in Texas Air National Guard uniform
This is the first time Karl Woodmansey, DDS, professor at Texas A&M College of Dentistry, has been activated with the Texas Air National Guard, a calling that has helped hundreds.

Woodmansey oversees the entire process, including correctly obtaining and maintaining the samples, labeling each to match patients’ names and identifications, then appropriately storing and transporting. Just as important, he says, is being responsible for the medics’ personal safety while they work with potentially infected patients.

“We’ve kind of become a de facto family group,” he said.

Seeing entire families who are obviously miserable and suffering pulls at the heart strings, and Woodmansey said swabbing little kids is the hardest. Yet, being here reminds him of why he signed up for the guard in the first place: to give.

“One of the common talking points of this mission is, ‘Texas helping Texans,’” he said. “I am proud to be helping Texans, glad to be contributing, happy to be serving in a useful capacity.”

With six days on and one day off—which is mostly spent doing laundry and catching up on emails—Woodmansey said the days can all blend together.

“It’s kind of like ‘Groundhog Day’ every day. We get up, we go to a site, we set up, cars start lining up, and we do testing all day,” he said. “Then we take down our equipment stored in a big Penske truck, load our 17 personnel into our two passenger vans and drive back to our hotel.”

The team’s workload took an uptick recently when swabbing went from between 100 to 150 per day to nearly 250. On that particular Friday, dozens of cars snaked back so far that Woodsmansey couldn’t see the end of the line.

“My site was swamped. The populace is panicked now,” he said. “All testing sites had lines, lines, lines. It was a brutal day. I think I had a 10-minute break in that whole eight-hour day. It was chaos. We’re pedaling as fast as we can.”

As the weeks in El Paso plod on, an unexpected twist has caught Woodmansey’s attention: it’s a small world in the dental profession. Despite being 600 miles from home, the dental school feels very close for him as he experiences just six degrees of separation.

In mid-June, a Texas Woman’s University senior, who is also a Texas Air National Guardsman, was assigned to Woodmansey’s team as support personnel. When he found out Woodmansey was a Dallas dentist, the student shared his plans to go to dental school and had a ton of questions. Woodmansey answered what he could, and then a light bulb went off: he remembered that two Texas A&M College of Dentistry graduates, Christian Lepure and Shayna Abie, both class of 2020, recently relocated to El Paso. Woodsmansey thought they would have the best student-focused view. Not only did the Texas Woman’s student get the information he needed, but Lepure and Abie invited Woodmansey over for dinner.

Those dental connections have been a bright spot, Woodmansey said, especially as the pandemic resurges and the guard’s work is far from over. What was supposed to be a one-month mission morphed into two. As July 31 nears, he wonders if his extended end date will be pushed back again, just like it has for some of his fellow team members. “My heart goes out to those who are separated from their spouses and children,” he said. “It’s easier for me since I don’t have any family.”

Woodmansey’s Texas A&M dental family, however, is holding down the fort for him until he returns. Endodontic residents and dental students are housesitting and taking care of his cats.

“I miss my contact with the dental students and endodontic residents, as well as my faculty colleagues. I miss teaching and I miss dentistry. I look forward to returning to A&M,” he said.

This article by Kathleen Green Pothier originally appeared on Dentistry Insider.

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