Biden pledges to pay for National Guard’s Covid work

By Alice Miranda Ollstein
·3 min read

President-elect Joe Biden pledged Thursday to fully fund the National Guard's coronavirus relief work once he's sworn in, and criticized the Trump administration for making most states pick up 25 percent of the cost of having soldiers and airmen run testing sites, staff hospitals, conduct contact tracing and do other work amid the pandemic.

“It costs a lot of money and governors need that paid for,” Biden said after a video call with a bipartisan group of governors. “The fact is that this is a national emergency — that’s what FEMA is supposed to deal with. Our view is that should be done. When it comes to deploying the National Guard for Covid relief, that should be paid for.”

The Trump administration’s current authorization for about 20,000 Guard members working on the front lines expires on Dec. 31. More than 20 states have already requested an extension, the Guard bureau confirmed to POLITICO, many until March and some through next June given the likelihood that a vaccine won’t be widely available until well into 2021. The White House hasn't committed but could still approve an extension in the coming weeks.

Biden's promise comes as the virus surges across the country and as the U.S. pandemic death count exceeded a quarter million. An average of more than 150,000 cases per day were recorded over the past week, and about 70,000 people are now hospitalized, according to the Covid Tracking Project.

“Everybody can see where we are on the calendar, and the virus is not cooperating,” said John Goheen, the spokesperson for the National Guard Association, which represents the military branch in Washington, D.C. “The Guard has been a go-to force for many, many governors. And there is now more testing to be done, more Guard members being sent into prisons and nursing homes, and the need is only going to increase as winter approaches.”

State officials and lawmakers told POLITICO that they fear a monthlong gap in funding between the end of the year and when Biden is sworn in should Trump let funding lapse.

“The inauguration isn’t until late January, so does all of this have to come to a crashing halt?” said Maj. Gen. Matt Quinn, the head of the National Guard in Montana and the president of the Adjutants General Association. “It will have a significant negative impact on the states.”

Quinn said any lapse would hit at the worst possible time — with cases surging as people gather for holidays and cold weather pushes activities indoors. Already, he said, the spike in cases has forced troops in his state to largely abandon testing for asymptomatic people to focus on patients showing signs of infection, close contacts and frontline health care workers. He added that a funding gap would also harm the Guard members, many of whom have become infected in the line of duty.

“These soldiers and airmen need to be able to know whether they can count on the income they’re getting from doing this duty or have to go back to their previous employers,” he said. “If we send them home and then there’s a three-week break and then we get the word that we can pull them back in — that’s really not fair to them.”