National Guard activation expected to double by weekend to help combat coronavirus

Sean D. Naylor
National Security Correspondent
A Maryland National Guardsman reads journalist William J. Ford’s temperature on Thursday at the State House in Annapolis. (Amy Davis/the Baltimore Sun via AP)

The National Guard is preparing to respond to the coronavirus pandemic as if the nation were facing “54 separate hurricanes in every state, territory and the District of Columbia,” Air Force Gen. Joseph Lengyel, chief of the National Guard Bureau, told reporters Thursday.

The National Guard, which is composed of the Army National Guard and the Air National Guard, is a 450,000-strong reserve force organized across all 50 states, as well as Guam, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and the District of Columbia. Guard units report primarily to the governors of their states but can be federalized and placed under the command of the Department of Defense.

Governors in 27 states have so far activated a total of 2,050 Guard members in response to the pandemic, according to Lengyel, who added that he expects the number of activated Guard personnel to double by the weekend and then to keep increasing. “I’m expecting tens of thousands to be used inside the states as this grows,” he said. “This could quickly blossom in the next couple of weeks.

“A historic event demands a historic response,” Lengyel said, adding that the Guard is spread across “nearly every ZIP code in the country” and is the ideal force to help communities respond to the coronavirus threat. “When disaster strikes we don’t have to mobilize from some base; we pack a lunch, we go to work, because we are already there in the communities where these events are taking place,” he said. “We live there. We can respond faster.”

Lengyel indicated that the Guard would play a key role in testing for the coronavirus. “We expect the total number of Guardsmen activated will increase rapidly as test kits become available,” he said. Six members of the Guard have tested positive for COVID-19, according to Lengyel.

The Guard is already administering tests in Colorado, New York and Rhode Island, while across the country it is also involved in planning, command and control and logistical support for local communities’ pandemic responses, he added.

Pfc. Sison of the New York Army National Guard helps pack bags for food distribution in New Rochelle, N.Y., on Wednesday. (Andrew Kelly/Reuters)

In New Rochelle, the epicenter of the outbreak in New York, Guard members are distributing food, while in South Florida, more than 500 Army National Guard soldiers are helping to collect samples for drive-through coronavirus testing in Broward County, Lengyel said, adding that Guard units across the country are conducting similar missions. “We could be the transportation mechanism that actually delivers and equips the various drive-through test sites that are out there,” he said. 

Echoing other defense officials, Lengyel warned that mobilizing Guard medical personnel to combat the spread of the coronavirus means removing them from their civilian jobs treating patients in their communities. “There’s kind of a zero-sum game here,” he said.

Guard medical units could make their equipment available to civilian medical facilities, Lengyel acknowledged, but, he added, that would not amount to much. “It’s a relatively small contribution when you look at the scope and scale of what this might be across the nation,” he said.

Guard forces under state authority might also assist state and local law enforcement organizations, something that active-duty forces under the Defense Department usually lack the legal authority to do, according to Lengyel. This might occur if those police forces need manpower to backfill personnel who have fallen sick, he added. “Anything that law enforcement naturally does, they can be augmented with National Guard troops,” he said.

However, Lengyel said he had received no reports of local authorities requesting Guard troops for law enforcement functions. “I don’t see any demand signal that’s demanding that we’re going to use the National Guard in that kind of scenario,” he said.

National Guard soldiers receive sterile coveralls to wear before checking the temperature of arriving passengers in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on Tuesday. (Ricardo Arduengo/Reuters)

With hurricane season approaching, coastal communities under self-quarantine face two potential disasters. Asked what the Guard would do to assist, Lengyel said that although there are plans for evacuation “on the shelf” in those states, “we may have to adapt how we do it” if people are under quarantine. “We’ll just have to deal with that when it comes to it.”

Just as with hurricanes and other national disasters, according to Lengyel, if a state fighting the pandemic has needs that its own National Guard cannot fill, it can request help from another state via an agreement called an emergency management assistance compact.

Lengyel said he did not anticipate any moves to federalize Guard units to cope with the coronavirus pandemic. “That would not make sense in this situation,” he said, arguing that keeping the Guard working for the governors allows for more flexibility.

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