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Nevada Guardsmen battle COVID-19 as civilian medical professionals

1st Lt Sparkle Mccuiston photo

1st Lt. Sparkle Mccuiston, 152nd Medical Group, Nevada Air National Guard, left, stands in her U.S. Air Force service dress uniform; on right, Mccuiston poses for a photo in scrubs she wears as a civilian infectious disease nurse practitioner in Las Vegas. Mccuiston she's come in contact with three confirmed cases while working her civilian job (Courtesy photo).

NEVADA AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, Nev. --

While the Nevada National Guard has not been activated, some members of the state’s military force are among those already on the front line battling COVID-19.

1st Lt. Sparkle Mccuiston, 152nd Medical Group, Nevada Air National Guard, said she's come in contact with three confirmed cases while working her civilian job as an infectious disease nurse practitioner in Las Vegas.

“In my opinion, it may not be nearly as deadly as some diseases I come in contact with, such as tuberculosis which killed 1.5 million people in 2018,” said Mccuiston, who drills one weekend a month and two weeks each year as clinical nurse specialist at the Nevada Air National Guard’s C-130 airlift wing unit in Reno. “(COVID-19) hasn't reached those mortality levels. The part that is concerning is the supplies and ability to keep seeing the patients along with the availability of beds. It’s hit fast. It’s hit very quickly.”

The first confirmed case in Nevada occurred on March 5. There are more than 120 confirmed cases in the state as of today, March 21, including two deaths, according to the Nevada Department of Health and Human Services. Most of those confirmed cases are in Las Vegas. Nationwide, there have been more than 15,000 confirmed cases with more than 200 deaths, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's website reported Friday.

Mccuiston, 30, said she’s worked at several hospitals in the past week, including Desert Springs, Southern Hills, Spring Valley and the Kindred long-term care facility. She regularly works at multiple hospitals each day.

Given her close contact with the virus, Mccuiston said one of her biggest fears is passing COVID-19 to other people, especially the elderly. She has quarantined herself at home when not at work and avoids shopping for groceries. Her boyfriend leaves the house to purchase essential items.

“I am trying to limit my exposure to everybody,” Mccuiston said. “I have not exposed myself to anybody outside our home and only come into contact with people outside when I’m at work. Nurses are getting (COVID-19). It’s definitely spreading in the community faster than many expected.”

The Nevada National Guard compiled a list this month of how many of its personnel work as civilian medical professionals. According to the list, more than 240 Nevada Guardsmen in both the Army and Air Guard work as medical professionals, whether as nurses, doctors, dental technicians or in other fields.

“Medical providers are essential to the hospitals where they work,” said Col. Martin Bain, Nevada National Guard State Air Surgeon who works full-time as a civilian trauma surgeon in the surgical intensive care unit at Renown Regional Medical Center in Reno. “We will do everything we can to keep them functional in their civilian jobs where we think they have the most impact.”

About 75 percent of the Nevada National Guard’s 4,300 Soldiers and Airmen train one weekend each month and two weeks each year to stay proficient in their military occupations. For Mccuiston, the Guard helped pay for much of her associate and bachelor degrees, putting her on a path to complete her masters in 2018. Bain said medical professionals also join to "leverage skills as a physician or nurse to do things they could never do in the community and abroad around the world."

Mccuiston, who joined the Nevada Army National Guard's Medical Detachment in 2009 before transferring to the Nevada Air Guard in 2015, said she’s taken countless calls from family and friends asking questions about COVID-19. Since the outbreak in Las Vegas, she’s also seen an alarming spike in patients frustrated with medical professionals, which worries her.

“The biggest misconception is some people think we are not doing anything for them,” said Mccuiston, who has noticed test results taking five-to-six days to return, up from two-to-three days only a week ago. “This is a virus. If you are healthy and have minor symptoms, please don't go to urgent care. Please self quarantine… I've also gotten so many calls from friends and family who are scared. I’ve tried to calm them down and tell them we need to get through this. Effects won’t be as bad as everyone is thinking, especially if we collectively continue to take precautions and practice social distancing.”