Student's Guard service has him on COVID front lines

by John Keenan, UNMC public relations | May 21, 2020

Image with caption: First Lieutenant Nathan Harms

First Lieutenant Nathan Harms

Third-year medical student and native Nebraskan Nathan Harms has always loved his state.

He's seen a lot of it lately, too, as a first lieutenant in the 155th Medical Group of the Nebraska National Guard.

Lt. Harms, commissioned in the National Guard in August 2017, is more than 40 days into his first deployment, as the 155th Medical Group, based in Lincoln, barnstorms the state to provide drive-through COVID-19 testing in dozens of Nebraska communities such as Crete, O'Neill, Tecumseh and Fremont.

The 155th is teamed with the 72nd Chemical, Biological, Radiological/Nuclear and Explosive Enhanced Response Force Package group in the effort.

"We've hit all corners of the state, pretty much," Lt. Harms said.

The 155th's response to the COVID-19 pandemic is Lt. Harms' first deployment.

"They started assembling these teams back in April, with nurses, doctors, administrative positions, some Army personnel, to ultimately be able to handle the capabilities of testing," he said. "That's the main reason I was deployed - my medical background, knowledge and clinical experience."

The joint teams of Air National Guard and Army National Guard personnel were the first Guard units deployed in the state, although Lt. Harms said six more, from a variety of units, were currently in operation in response to the pandemic.

After arriving in a new town, the group sets up in a public building such as a fire station or utility building. People, given appointments by the public health department, come through in cars for COVID-19 screening and, based on their symptoms, testing.

"In a drive-through testing situation, we can't have a 30-minute conversation with people, but we can get some of their questions answered -- maybe something as simple as 'What should my family do if I come back positive?'" Lt. Harms said. "We try to relieve some of that burden.

"Our team alone has completed approximately 4,000 tests to date during this activation response."

A number of the people tested by the team are local health care workers.

"I appreciate that aspect," Lt. Harms said, "helping people in the state, people who also are serving and making sacrifices right here at home. I was born and raised in Nebraska, and it's been great to meet folks who are serving in that capacity and have that same passion for helping fellow Nebraskans."

The Crete native joined the guard because it gave him an opportunity to serve his country while in medical school, he said.

"Guard training really complements my training at UNMC," he said. "We're there wherever we're needed; we try to be versatile; and they put us in situations where people are in need and we can step up as leaders and take on the problem."

Lt. Harms, who says he plans to stay in the Guard through his residency and beyond, said he is proud of how his classmates at UNMC have responded to the pandemic, with many community outreach and volunteer efforts.

"Ultimately, you find that everyone's making sacrifices," he said. "It's a matter of being patient and helping out where you can. It's frustrating, not working in the capacity we all hoped we could, but I think everyone's doing great work with the opportunities they have."

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