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COVID Surge Triggers Beefed-Up Guard Response

Washington Report

The National Guard has once again surged its COVID-19 support missions, this time in response to a pandemic peak in hospitalizations that has stretched health care providers thin.

More than 15,600 Guardsmen were supporting state and local officials battling the coronavirus as of late last week, with more than 6,000 providing direct support to hospitals.   

The support comes after COVID-19 hospitalizations reached a pandemic peak in early January, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Ohio, with almost 2,500 Guardsmen deployed in support of COVID missions, has the largest current response of any other state.

“Our primary focus is to ensure we can help these hospitals meet their capacity as they are being overrun by the perfect storm of the [COVID] variants and staffing challenges,” said Maj. Gen. John Harris, the adjutant general of Ohio.

The Ohio Guard is helping expand capacity by providing medical teams and nonmedical support teams and by operating testing sites away from hospitals.

In addition to providing direct medical support, Harris said Guardsmen were performing tasks meant to free up hospital staff, such as turning over and cleaning rooms, transporting patients and observing patients who are a threat to harm themselves.

He said the Guard, able to deploy in small teams with organic leadership, is perfect for this type of response.

“We’ve been able to move quickly, we’ve been able to be agile. Most importantly — our relationships ensure we have the right troops in the right places at the right time,” Harris said.

Guardsmen in 49 states and territories are currently contributing to the COVID-19 response mission, said Gen. Daniel R. Hokanson, the chief of the National Guard Bureau.

Hokanson said the Guard spent 10.2 million man-days responding to COVID in 2021 alone and noted the Guard has met “every single request for assistance both at home and overseas” amid the pandemic.

The Guard has been on the frontlines of the pandemic from the beginning, he noted, praising soldiers and airmen for their efforts distributing protective equipment and aid, testing and screening for the virus and administering more than 14 million vaccinations.

Another state with a large COVID mission ongoing is New York, with 1,600 Guardsmen currently on duty.

Brig. Gen. Isabel Rivera Smith, the New York Guard’s director of Joint Staff, said the state was looking at innovative ways to support its hospitals. That includes a program that will train up to 400 Guardsmen with no current medical training as certified Emergency Medical Technicians.

The first class of future EMTs began earlier this month, she noted, with a graduation date expected in February.

The Guard has supported COVID-19 missions since March 2020, with the number of mobilized Guardsmen peaking at nearly 50,000 soldiers and airmen in May 2020 before dropping to just under 20,000 Guardsmen by late August 2020.

Numbers rose again to more than 30,000 Guardsmen by April 2021 before dipping back to under 15,000 as of August 2021. The latest call-ups are part of a third wave of COVID-19 support missions in response to virus surges.

The vast majority of Guardsmen are currently serving on Title 32 orders, officials said. They are covered by TRICARE while mobilized and have transitional health care for 180 days once their missions end, which was a legislative change won by NGAUS.

Guard leaders from several states said they are deploying Guardsmen where they are most needed in their home states, but also working to not exacerbate staffing shortages — meaning Guardsmen whose civilian careers are in the medical field are not being used.

State officials said they are also taking precautions to protect Guardsmen and patients alike, conducting regular testing and requiring vaccination to be eligible for any mission that is in direct contact with patients.