Multiple governors have expanded the role of National Guard units in combating the spread of COVID-19 within their states — with one state executive calling from the mobilization of the Army Corps of Engineers.
The governors of New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Colorado and West Virginia are the latest state executives to increase the involvement of the National Guard.
“The National Guard is fully involved at the local, state, and federal level in the planning and execution of the nation’s response to COVID-19,” a National Guard Bureau press release stated. “In times of emergency, the National Guard Bureau serves as a federal coordinating agency should a state require assistance from the National Guard of another state.”
In a Tuesday afternoon press conference, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said over 1,500 Guardsmen are now activated in 18 states across the country.
The secretary did not commit to federalizing the National Guard components.
“As we get requests in, we will look at activating, if we need to, at the federal level or using the Reserves, whatever the case may be. We want to be very supportive with regard to our prioritization in terms of supporting the American people and the governors,” Esper said. “Right now, we are really focused on Guard and Reserve — in that order. There hasn’t been a need yet, a request, for Active Duty. So we will take these requests in due time.”
“The Guard is already available to the governors. They know that.... So, it’s a resource available at their fingertips," Esper added. "What we want to do is make sure they understand all the capabilities of the Guard, how it may best be used.”
All 50 states have issued emergency declarations, a critical step before mobilizing National Guard resources.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York has specifically called for an increased role for the National Guard and for involvement from the Army Corps of Engineers in combating COVID-19.
Cuomo, in a press conference Monday, has now called on the New York National Guard to assist state officials in expanding in-patient hospital capabilities in anticipation of a spike in positive novel coronavirus cases requiring hospitalization.
“We are going to organize the National Guard to work with the building unions and work with private developers to find existing facilities that could most easily be adapted to medical facilities," Cuomo said in the press conference. “Meaning dormitories, meaning former nursing homes: facilities that have that basic configuration that could be retrofitted.”
Currently, the New York National Guard has about 500 personnel activated to assist in the state’s response, a state official said. These numbers may increase given the potential for an expanded role.
The governor called on local governments to “identify” possible locations for new beds, and he cited an additional 5,000 beds in New York City as a target figure.
Cuomo was the first governor to activate the National Guard to assist in the state’s response in New Rochelle, New York, a suburb of New York City, where a “cluster” of cases were confirmed.
Guardsmen continue to assist with food delivery, logistics and cleaning services in the previously identified “containment area.”
In addition, guardsmen, including Army National Guard combat medic specialists and Air National Guard medical technicians, are “assisting state officials with the collection of samples” at drive-thru testing locations, the official added.
Additional drive-thru testing locations are coming online throughout the state including on Staten Island, Cuomo noted.
In the press conference, Cuomo also called for the federal government to deploy the Army Corps of Engineers to increase the hospital beds available for potential patients in New York state.
“The federal government has tremendous capacity: deploy the Army Corps of Engineers to come work with states to build temporary medical facilities,” Cuomo said. "We don’t have the billions of dollars you would need to implement an immediate, emergency hospital construction program. This state can’t do it; no state can do it.”
Cuomo’s desires for increased federal involvement coincides with those from some lawmakers for greater participation of U.S. military Reserves units in the nationwide COVID-19 response.
“The federal government operates and maintains a medical emergency stock, where they have stocked medical equipment for domestic issues or for wartime," Cuomo added. “We will continue to do everything we can, but we need federal assets and we need federal assistance.”
On his call for the Army Corps of Engineers, Cuomo said there have been "ongoing conversations, none of which have been conclusive.”
Trump and Vice President Mike Pence addressed questions about the deployment of the Army Corps of Engineers at a press conference Tuesday.
“As governors make these requests, we will process them, bring them to the president. There are two different lanes that [the Defense Department] can provide in addition to many medical supplies to augment our national reserves," Pence said. “[T]he president has tasked us to evaluate, make available and consider every request from governors for either field hospitals, expanding facilities or the Army Corps of Engineers that could retrofit existing buildings.”
“The Army Corps of Engineers is ready, willing and able. We have to give them the go ahead if we find that it’s going to be necessary," Trump said. "I think we had quite a few units up very rapidly. I am going to work with Gov. Cuomo. I am going to work with a number of the governors.”
On the question of mobilizing Defense Department resources, Esper addressed the potential for greater involvement at the federal level.
“My view is, I am more than willing to send the Army Corps of Engineers out to work with states and to see what we can provide, what we can offer," Esper said in the press conference. "As you know the Corps of Engineers is a contracting body that does program oversight and work. If we can be useful, we can help, certainly willing to provide that service.”
“With regard to New York, I am hoping to have a call with [Gov. Cuomo] sometimes soon…find out what his needs are," Esper added. “As I speak to governors and others, I tell them, ‘Tell us what your needs are,’ and we’ll figure out the best way to meet them — whether it’s logistics, planning, medical.”
According to the New York Department of Health, New York as of Tuesday has 1,374 confirmed cases of COVID-19, 730 of which are outside New York City.
On Monday, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy activated the New Jersey National Guard to assist in the state’s response.
“We will be working closely with the [New Jersey] Office of Emergency Management to assist fellow residents as we change from our civilian attire and put on our uniforms to serve this state…. Our most likely mission sets are focused on capability gaps.” said Brig. Gen. Jemal Beale, adjutant general of New Jersey. “They are things like advise and assist, logistics, transportation, traffic control, security or bringing in our engineers to maybe bring a facility back online that’s needed in some way, shape or form for COVID-19.”
Gov. Murphy said the role of the Guardsmen will likely focus on food delivery and manning drive-thru test locations in the intermediate — with the possibility of converting "a building for some self-quarantine reasons” if needed.
“We will simultaneously be supporting the veterans in our long-term care facilities as well as the veterans’ community across the state,” Beale added.
Murphy echoed New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s desires to ready the Army Corps of Engineers on the federal level to assist state Guardsmen to retrofit or build temporary hospitals if the state health care system becomes overwhelmed.
In Maryland, Gov. Larry Hogan activated around 400 guardsmen from the Maryland Army and Air National Guard over the weekend to augment the state’s capabilities.
In a press conference Monday, Hogan said a total of 1,000 guardsmen will be activated by the day’s end with an additional 1,200 on “enhanced readiness” status, expected to be activated this week.
“Decision-makers at the federal, state, and local level are going to take drastic actions right now that may seem scary, that may sound extreme," Hogan said. "They will be terribly disruptive, but they will be absolutely necessary to save the lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans.”
These guardsmen include two Area Support Medical Companies to assist state health officials in screening patients, transporting supplies and distributing food.
“One of things that the governor mentioned was the distribution of the Strategic National Stockpile mission, particularly personal protective equipment,” said Maj. Gen. Timothy E. Gowen, Maryland adjutant general, in the press conference. “That’s always been a standing mission for us, and we are going to execute that in the coming days.”
Gov. Hogan also ordered the Maryland Department of Health to identify and “open closed hospitals” to increase bed capacity. The state has 57 confirmed cases as of Tuesday, according to the Maryland Department of Health.
In Colorado, 145 guardsmen have been mobilized to assist state officials in COVID-19 response and mitigation efforts, including manning drive-thru screening areas.
“These National Guard members are the state’s resident trained and equipped experts in biological hazards,” the press release stated. “[The guardsmen] are assisting with testing and testing support and advising Colorado local and state partners with validated tactics, techniques and procedures for future screening missions in Colorado.”
Colorado reported 160 confirmed cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday.
In West Virginia, National Guard personnel provided local first responders from West Virginia and Kentucky with specialized training.
“Participants learned best practices to mitigate responder and employee exposure to Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19), as well as other radiological, biological and chemical (CBRNE) responses, and how to enhance personal protective actions and protocols during daily operations,” the release stated.
As of Monday, several other states have continued utilizing components of their National Guard to assist in response and mitigation efforts, although in a lower volume that New York’s response.
A small contingency of Iowa National Guard liaisons officers are assisting in the State Emergency Operations Center, the Iowa Air National Guard is providing facilities and flight line support to the Iowa Department of Public Health, according to Col. Michael Wunn, Iowa National Guard director of public affairs.
The Florida National Guard activated additional personnel over the weekend, bringing a total to 300 Guardsmen, assisting with planning functions in the State Emergency Operations Center and logistics in the State Logistics Readiness Center. A medical task force is also being stood up in Broward County, state officials said.
On Friday, the California Air National Guard activated a 10-person “medical augmentation team" from the 144th Fighter Wing of the California Air National Guard “to provide emergency pre-hospital stabilization response for up to 24 patients per 24-hour operations,” according to a press release.
In Louisiana, 29 guardsmen are now assisting New Orleans and state officials as parish liaison officers, logistics planners and engineers. The state’s “full time force is quite engaged and leaning forward in a preparedness mode...anticipating any possible future mission requests,” an official said.
The Puerto Rico National Guard has been activated to screen passengers arriving on the island via the airport and cruise ship ports. This mobilization follows extended missions to respond to multiple hurricanes and earthquakes.
“We are currently structuring this new mission to support the mitigation and control efforts of state and federal agencies in response to the COVID-19 emergency,” said Brig. Gen. Miguel Méndez, commanding officer of Task Force-Puerto Rico, in a press release. “Our staff is being evaluated and trained for this new contingency and is being deployed at Luis Muñoz Marín Airport to carry out the assigned functions.”
At the federal level, the National Guard Bureau is working with interagency partners as part of the nationwide response to the COVID-19 outbreak, and the bureau serves “as a federal coordinating agency should a state require assistance from the National Guard of another state."
“Bottom line, our force must remain flexible, innovative and ready to help America mitigate the impacts of this virus,” said Gen. Joseph Lengyel, National Guard Bureau chief, in the release. “I trust the Adjutants General in the 50 states, three territories and District of Columbia will continue to make decisions at their level to ensure our force of 450,000 people will be ready when their governors’ call.”
Leo Shane III contributed to this story.
Dylan Gresik is a reporting intern for Military Times through Northwestern University's Journalism Residency program.