Adjutant General Benjamin Corell.

Nearly 900 Iowa National Guard soldiers have been called to active duty to help in the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Adjutant General Benjamin Corell says 150 of those soldiers are at call centers in Cedar Rapids, Sioux City, and Johnston, helping determine the spread of the virus through contact tracing.

“These soldiers and airmen are assisting the Iowa Department of Public Health in their efforts to contact Iowans who have tested positive for the virus,” Corell says, “in order to help identify other persons and places that may have been exposed.”

Coronavirus outbreaks in small Iowa counties have overwhelmed the limited number of local public health staff available to do the kind of investigations that identify people who may have been exposed to the virus and encourage them to isolate themselves to prevent spreading COVID-19. Corell says the information soldiers collect through their conversations is turned over to the state.

“The Iowa National Guard members supporting these missions have been thoroughly trained by public health professionals to gather and properly handle personal information required to determine potential COVID-19 exposure,” Corell says.

A few weeks ago, Governor Reynolds indicated employees in the Iowa Department of Public Health would also be reassigned to do this work, but there has been no indication when or how many may be joining the effort. Until a COVID-19 vaccine is available, experts say social distancing will be necessary until there’s widespread testing, followed by quickly tracking down people who were around someone who has the illness.

Beyond the contact tracing mission, another 25 soldiers are picking up, transporting and unloading food for the state’s six regional food banks.

“We are Iowans helping Iowans, neighbors helping neighbors,” Corell says.

In addition, guard soldiers are distributing COVID-19 test kits around the state and returning samples to the State Hygienics Lab. Others are providing administrative and logistical support to the “Test Iowa” sites in Des Moines and Waterloo.