More than 17,250 National Guard troops have been deployed in all 50 states and territories to help battle the coronavirus pandemic in a wide variety of assignments from disinfecting nursing homes in Georgia to removing the bodies of victims in New York City to helping police in Rhode Island pull over motorists with New York tags entering the state.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Tuesday that increasing numbers of states will be using the guard, and they have the option of using troops to enforce stay-at-home orders.
“I'm very proud of what our guardsmen are doing, but we have a whole lot more capacity out there in the guard right now to do more,” Esper said on CBS News.
Most recently, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp said Wednesday that he is deploying his state's National Guard to assisted living facilities and nursing homes to thoroughly clean them and train staff on employing more aggressive infectious disease control measures.
"If we can keep these populations as healthy as possible, we will be able to conserve precious medical supplies and hospital bed space in the coming days and weeks," Kemp said. More than 100 guard members will be deployed in the effort.
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Calling up the guard
The National Guard, which is community-based, reports to the governor of a state unless called to protect U.S. domestic interests in times of conflict or natural disaster, or even internationally alongside full-time service members.
Members of the Army or Air National Guard, which number almost 450,000 across the U.S. and its territories, hold civilian jobs or attend school while training part-time for the military.
In most cases, the governor calls them up after declaring a state of emergency, such as a severe storm or a domestic disturbance.
They also can be federalized by the president, who can then deploy them to other states, such as during natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina.
In 1958, President Dwight Eisenhower federalized Arkansas National Guard troops to take them out of the hands of Gov. Orval Faubus, who had called them out to block court-ordered integration of a public school in Little Rock. Eisenhower, acting as commander-in-chief, not only took control of the troops, he paired them with 101st Airborne to escort African American students to school.
What the guard is doing nationwide
Amid the coronavirus pandemic, the guard has been mobilized in all 50 states, as well as Puerto Rico, Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Washington, D.C
In a move that speeds up mobilization, President Donald Trump has placed at least 12 states or territories under Title 32 status, which allows states to maintain control of the troops while the federal government picks up the tab.
April Cunningham, spokeswoman for the National Guard Bureau, told USA TODAY that the number of mobilizations is "moving so rapidly" it is difficult to provide a state-by-state breakdown. But as of Tuesday morning, she said, more than 17,250 Air and Army National Guard professionals were operating at the direction of their governors.
To qualify for Title 32 status, states must, among other things, have a major disaster declaration for the COVID-19 response or have requested such a review by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and have explained how the troops would be used.
Here's how the guard has been deployed across the country:
► In Michigan, about 3,000 National Guard troops will help run mobile screening facilities, distribute food and medical supplies and disinfect public spaces. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer also plans to deploy guard members to work with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to build a temporary medical center inside Detroit’s TCF Center.
► In New York, the state hit hardest by the pandemic, more than 27,000 guard members are putting up a temporary hospital, delivering supplies, clearing roads, taking coronavirus samples at testing centers and even manning call centers.
"Although staffing a call center is not what many of us foresaw when we joined the National Guard, it is a way for us to assist our fellow citizens and connect them with the information they need," said Army 1st Lt. Michel Flickinger, the officer in charge of the Schenectady call center, according to the guard's national website.
The New York deployment was one of the earliest during the outbreak to help with residents of New Rochelle, which was under quarantine.
In New York City, guard members also will be working with members of the New York City Medical Examiner's office to help remove bodies, said Col. Richard Goldenberg, New York Army National Guard public affairs officer.
► In Arizona, a team of 19 National Guard soldiers built a 50-bed federal medical station overnight Sunday to begin supporting the Navajo Nation in the fight against the pandemic.
► In Iowa, eight National Guard troops set up two tents last week at a Department of Veterans Affairs hospital to screen visitors for the virus.
► In Pennsylvania, 25 National Guard members unloaded equipment to help the Federal Emergency Management Agency build a non-coronavirus overflow clinic at a school.
► In Kentucky, troops have been stationed outside Louisville hospitals, and Gov. Andy Beshear has mobilized 70 members to food bank warehouses around the state to assist in sorting, packing and distributing food.
► In West Virginia, about 350 guard members are delivering medical supplies to health care workers, educating big-box retail stores, restaurants and convenience stores on protective measures, and even directing traffic at drive-through testing sites.
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'It is not a police activity'
In some cases, the guard has been used to bolster police efforts to enforce quarantines.
In Rhode Island, guard troops joined police to man checkpoints on Interstate 95 and other routes into the state to stop cars with license plates from New York, which is the epicenter of the outbreak.
In an executive order, Gov. Gina Raimondo said New York residents entering Rhode Island for a nonwork purpose for a period of time must self-quarantine for 14 days. That was later expanded the order to anyone entering the state.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo called the order “reactionary” and unconstitutional, saying he’d sue Rhode Island if the policy isn’t rescinded but believed the two states could “work it out.”
In the coastal town of Westerly, a guard member also accompanied a police officer door to door to get contact information from visiting New Yorkers and to tell them they must self-quarantine. They were expected to visit 1,000 homes with that message.
“This is more of an education tool to make people aware and comply with what we are asking them to do,” Westerly police Chief Shawn Lacey said. “We certainly hope it doesn’t get to enforcement action that has to happen.”'
In Westerly, six teams went “driveway to driveway,” as Lacey put it, to identify cars, SUVs and trucks with New York license plates. Then the pairs, one police officer and one guard member, approached whomever was living in the house.
On Friday, a spokesman for the guard, Capt. Mark Incze, stressed that information gathered by guard personnel will go to the Rhode Island Department of Health and not to federal immigration authorities, he said.
National Guard bureau chief Air Force Gen. Joe Lengyel stressed in a meeting with reporters and in a livestream town hall meeting with guard members Tuesday that they would not be used in a law enforcement role.
He specifically sought to dispose of what he said were rumors of martial law.
“Some of it is just people are just concerned, and scared and anxious,” he said. “And then we probably have external actors – countries that want to sow chaos in the United States and are injecting some of this into the ecosystem, if you will.”
Lengyel said there has been no discussion at the highest levels either of a national quarantine, of using troops to enforce any local restrictions “or any of the other nonsense that’s out there.”
In New Rochelle, New York, local officials took pains to stress that guard troops were there to clean and sanitize public areas and hand out food, not to enforce the quarantine.
"It is not a police activity. They are not in tanks, they are in regular vehicles. They are not armed," said New Rochelle City Manager Charles Strome, NY1.com reported.
Thank you for all you are doing as we support our local, state & federal partners with this whole-of-America response to COVID-19. Please help the #NationalGuard -- & the entire @DeptofDefense -- by sharing accurate information & squashing rumors. pic.twitter.com/uJca5mnrIJ— Gen. Joseph Lengyel (@ChiefNGB) March 24, 2020
National Guard Bureau spokeswoman Cunningham said troops can be used for everything from traffic control to crowd control, but there is no plan to use them to impose quarantine, enforce shelter-in-place operations, "or any kind of large-scale lockdown capacity."
"In any scenario where National Guard are called upon to conduct law enforcement operations, they are paired with civilian law enforcement that has appropriate jurisdictional control for that area," Cunningham said.
In Washington state, Gov. Jay Inslee said the guard was being mobilized to "ensure our critical food banks remain stocked and operational." He asked residents to "welcome them in our communities as they process, package and distribute meals."
His spokesman, David Postman, took pains to try to reassure residents nervous of such deployments.
“I would not expect the National Guard to be playing any law enforcement or road closure role or anything of that sort,” Postman said. “There is nothing alarming. It’s not being done because of any increased threat. It’s not being done because of any increased restrictions that the governor is going to announce. It’s just to help some of the operations that are going on today in a support role.”
Contributing: Mark Reynolds, Providence Journal; The Associated Press
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Coronavirus: How National Guard troops are helping amid COVID-19