As the number of coronavirus cases increases in the U.S., President Donald Trump Sunday night ordered National Guard troops in three states to operate under a status that allows them to be managed by state governors, but be paid by the federal government.
“We want to win this war with as few deaths as possible,” Trump said Sunday afternoon. “Today, I am announcing action to help New York, California, and Washington, to ensure that the National Guard can effectively respond. The National Guard, these are tremendous people. Fully on alert. It has been activated.”
The move will make it easier for states, already facing increasing costs as a result of the pandemic, to call in the National Guard if needed to help deal with the problems caused by COVID-19.
There have been more than 30,000 coronavirus cases in the U.S., with at least 400 deaths, CNN reports.
Trump’s initial order called for National Guard troops in the three-hardest hit states — New York, California, and Washington — to operate under what is called Title 32. Under this federalized status, Guard troops still report to the governor, but the government picks up the cost. Normally, it is a 75-25 split, with states picking up the smaller portion, but Trump waived that split and the federal government will absorb the entire cost.
More states are expected to seek Title 32 status as the need arises, Air Force Gen. Joseph L. Lengyel, Chief of the National Guard Bureau, told reporters Sunday night.
As of this morning, governors across all 50 states, Puerto Rico, Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Washington D.C. have each mobilized components of their Army and Air National Guard to assist in their state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Speaking to reporters via a telephone conference, Lengyel again tamped down rumors that the Guard troops will be used to enforce martial law.
“There is no truth to this rumor that people are conspiring, that governors are planning, that anyone is conspiring to use the National Guard, mobilized or not, Title 32 or state, to do military action to enforce shelter in place or quarantines.”
The move is important, said Lengyel, because “governors and adjutant generals know the best use of what’s needed in their states,. This will help with unity of effort and speed of responses.”
Though Guard troops won’t be used to enforce shelter in place or quarantine, they can be used to assist in law enforcement efforts, Lengyel said, something routine during other national disasters like hurricanes, tornadoes and large fires.
Lengyel said governors had been vocal in seeking the federal status.
“One reason is that it speeds response,” he said. "States are not used to disaster that last this long. This will last for a while.”
States that may have been reluctant to mobilize additional troops, because they were on the hook for the bill, may be less reticent now, said Lengyel. He estimated it costs about $8 million to $9 million a month to mobilize 1,000 troops, depending on what they are doing.
There is also a great benefit to troops as well, said Lengyel. Under Title 32 authority, they receive essentially the same benefits as active duty troops, including Tricare health insurance, points toward retirement and full GI Bill benefits.
Lengyel said that no troops will be asked to go into dangerous areas without full protective gear, and that he does not believe the response will be slowed by access to such gear.
“Nobody will be asked to do anything without proper equipment,” he said. “Like the rest of the country, we are concerned about the total quantities of masks.”
He added that federal or state agencies tasking Guard troops with coronavirus duties will “help provide us some of the equipment.”
Some of the special units, like Civil Support Teams and other specialty teams, have such equipment, said Lengyel. But the concern is how long supplies will last.
“We are concerned with the duration of the oncoming onslaught,” he said. “This is an history event. It requires an history response.”
Lengyel said that, at the moment, there are no guidelines about troops coming in contact with coronavirus patients. Currently, some Guard troops are helping out with testing at drive-through sites.
There is no expectation of providing direct medical support, Lengyel said.
A lot of the work will be helping maintain transportation and logistics, for instance helping ensure grocery stores are able to get what they need.
The more than 7,300 Guard troops already deployed are working on several missions, including, but are not limited to:
*Delivering food in hard-hit communities;
*Manning call centers to be a knowledgeable and calming voice;
*Providing critical Personal Protective Equipment training and sample collection to first responders and hospital personnel;
*Supporting local emergency management agencies with response planning and execution;
*Providing support to testing facilities;
*Serving as response liaisons and support to state Emergency Operations Centers;
*Proving transportation and assessment support to healthcare providers;
*Assisting with disinfecting/cleaning of common public spaces;
*Collecting and delivering samples.
Howard Altman is an award-winning editor and reporter who was previously the military reporter for the Tampa Bay Times and before that the Tampa Tribune, where he covered USCENTCOM, USSOCOM and SOF writ large among many other topics.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.