ORLANDO, Fla. –
She left for her first Army mission without knowledge of her final destination, or when she’d be able to return home to her two dogs, cat and bearded dragon.
As she prepared to leave for the mission in early April, Capt. Holly Beard, an Army Reserve entomologist, had only one certainty: she’d be battling against the spread of a deadly virus.
At the time, Beard knew little of COVID-19, apart from information disseminated by the news media and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
She received the ambiguous phone call from her unit while visiting family in Florida. The 332nd Medical Brigade, based in Nashville, Tennessee, had selected her to join an Urban Augmentation Medical Task Force and travel to a military base in rural Kentucky for additional training before deploying to an unknown location.
She loaded her suitcases with everything she thought that she needed: her military uniforms, extra clothes, tuna snack packs and toilet paper.
In less than a day’s time, she said goodbye to her girlfriend and boarded a plane in a nearly empty airport.
“It happened so fast,” Beard said.
After training in Kentucky and taking another flight to Fort Dix, New Jersey, she finally learned she’d be deploying just outside New York City in Newark, N.J., to bring relief to overtasked health care workers in the pandemic’s epicenter.
No stranger to changing conditions, Beard welcomed the challenge.
Overcoming her fears
A competitive cyclist who raced for the University of Florida, Beard had faced uncertain circumstances before, though none this grave. Cycling requires adjustments to the elements, inclines and other cyclists’ vying for position.
In one riding season, she had suffered about 10 falls and collisions during races. Beard had to overcome the worry of another accident.
She remembers the burn of those tumbles and how they shook her confidence. Beard’s response: push harder. She eventually finished as one of the Gators’ top cyclists and earned the school’s female athlete of the year award in 2014.
During some races she’d hit a rough patch of gravel, or another cyclist would collide with her. Each time she’d get on her bike, she’d have to learn to mentally block the fear of falling again.
“It’s kind of like the catchphrase ‘a little progress was made with little risk,’” she said. “I think that's exactly the same mentality that I went into for [the] COVID-19 [mission].
“You know, the fear … you can't always be afraid of the unknown. You kind of have to accept that you're already confident in your abilities.”
Beard grew up in Boca Rotan, along the state’s tourist-friendly southeastern coast. The humid Florida heat also conjured a different type of crowd: insects or specifically fire ants, mosquitoes and termites. A 2010 national homeowner’s report claimed Florida as the “buggiest state” in the country. Insect behavior and activity fascinated Beard at an early age.
That love of entomology led her to study the field at the University of Florida’s Gainesville campus and to take a job as a senior technical sales and research associate for Texas-based Polyguard Products. Beard studied how the condition of a building’s envelope including waterproofing and insect prevention, determined a structure’s long-term health. She commissioned into the Army Reserve in 2017 after graduating with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in entomology at UF.
She said she could not have predicted her area of expertise would impact the long-term health of COVID-19 patients. At UF, she read that disease and injury unrelated to the battlefield caused more deaths than combat and she joined the Army Reserve to help protect Soldiers against those illnesses.
Although her role as an Army entomologist focused more on preventive medicine, some of the skills and ability to perform thorough inspections of a structure or space proved critical to COVID-19 patients, and the doctors and nurses charged with their care.
Providing defense amid the chaos
Inside Newark’s University Hospital, which housed hundreds of patients in New Jersey’s largest city, Beard and the task force worked behind the scenes and impacted COVID-19 patients from a distance. As of June 21, total coronavirus deaths in the state had climbed to 12,870.
She split her days between inspecting and setting up hospital beds for one of the nation’s most heavily-tasked hospitals, with working in the morgue alongside attendants to help coronavirus victims reach their final resting place. The nurses and hospital staff often worked through the night to meet the demand for care in the sprawling complex, logging 18-hour work days.
Beard said often up to 60 patients had to wait as long as four days for one of the coveted hospital rooms. The hospital often housed between 10-15 ventilated patients in the emergency room.
“It's not something that you normally see,” said Beard, who also helped convert the New Jersey Convention Center in Edison to a field medical station before arriving in Newark. “The civilian staff was already severely worn down. It was very stressful on the providers and on the nursing staff.
“So I feel like just being able to be there before it peaked, we were able to … alleviate some of the pressure [off] that staff.”
Beard examined each room for environmental safety and hygiene, a crucial step in the critical task of containing a virus. For a complex as massive as University Hospital, preventing the spread became no easy job.
Rooms must meet specific requirements and, in some cases maintain negative pressure to control the virus.
She helped New Jersey hospital workers adjust to the growing cases of patients around them and restore order beneath the chaos.
During her inspections, Beard performed air-pressure checks for each hospital room. Hospitals like University maintain airborne infectious isolation rooms to house COVID-19 patients. Her preventive medicine team also inspected food storage and enforced proper doffing of personal protective equipment in the facility’s cafeteria using meticulous precision as a single contaminated item could further the spread.
“[The intent] was to contain the infection within the rooms instead of putting it into the environment that your staff is also working in,” she said. “We focused a lot on education and training for environmental services and so your quality checks empowered a staff that felt fear associated to the unknown of COVID.”
Her work could often be a thankless job, but on her final days at University Hospital, she and her fellow Soldiers left to applause from hospital workers. In those two short months, she formed such a strong a bond with the hospital staff at Newark and her fellow Soldiers in the task force, that she decided to extend her reserve commitment by another four years when she returned home May 20.
“It's an honor to be a part of something like this,” Beard said. “It's a humbling experience. It’s very different than anything I’ve ever done before. And I think that it's very rewarding to be able to have an experience like this one.
“As a preventive medicine Soldier you don’t always get these types of opportunities.”