WASHINGTON – More than 2,000 National Guardsmen are taking on COVID-19 as it continues to sweep the globe and safety measures ramp up, said the Army’s top official.
To date, at least 49 service members throughout the Department of Defense have tested positive for virus. In the weeks ahead, however, Secretary of the Army Ryan D. McCarthy said he expects those numbers to spike.
To take on this airborne threat, Army leaders plan to ask for roughly $1 billion from Congress to expand their testing supply kits and early vaccine and antiviral research efforts, he said.
“This is a day-to-day challenge for us,” McCarthy observed during a March 17 interview. “This is all new ground for the Army, and we’re going to make adjustments as we learn more over the next several weeks.”
The National Guard is the tip of the spear in the fight against COVID-19, McCarthy said.
Upon announcement of the pandemic, roughly 400 Guard members took action across six states against the coronavirus. As of March 16, those numbers surged to more than 650 troops in 15 states, and by the following Wednesday morning, more than 2,000 Guardsmen in 23 states responded to support civil authorities around the country.
So far, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Maryland, Montana, New Jersey, New Hampshire, New Mexico, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin have been called up.
Their mission has kept them busy, running the gamut of drive-thru testing facilities, providing logistic support for healthcare professionals, decontaminating public spaces, and coordinating efforts shoulder-to-shoulder with state emergency responders, among other tasks, officials said.
“Our Guardsmen are doing a heck of a job with their screening protocols” and how they’re helping their states, McCarthy said.
According to Air Force Gen. Joseph Lengyel, National Guard Bureau chief, the COVID-19 response effort is as large as 54 hurricanes happening concurrently, and ranging in severity from a Category 1-to-5.
The Army Medical Research and Development team also is working around the clock in the battle against COVID-19, McCarthy said.
“These professionals are extraordinary, world-class talent,” he acknowledged, adding that at Fort Detrick, Md., medical professionals are evaluating testing kits and conducting early vaccine research.
At the lab, a multifaceted group of virologists, epidemiologists, toxicologists, medical doctors, veterinarians and other researchers with experience taking on other viruses, such as Zika, Ebola and SARS are now working on COVID-19. The facility, according to the secretary, is “a national treasure.”
Although researchers expect a 12-to-18-month timeline for an antidote, their labs can collaborate with private-sector researchers and develop a vaccine earlier, according to Defense officials.
In addition to research, the Army – along with other defense agencies – plans to dole out their medical supply stashes to public health agencies as they gear up for an influx of COVID-19 patients, said Secretary of Defense Dr. Mark Esper during a separate press briefing last week.
More than 5 million respirator masks and roughly 2,000 deployable ventilators are expected to be given to the Department of Health and Human Services to help fight the outbreak.
U.S. Forces Korea has become the paragon for how to fight the virus, McCarthy said, adding its response “has been incredible.”
USFK troops have been threatened by the virus since January. Of the roughly 58,000 people stationed there, only nine who live off post have been infected. The key to success, according to their commander, is treating the epidemic like combat operations.
“We initiated 24/7 operations … and provided detailed daily updates,” said Gen. Robert Abrams, USFK commander, in a March 20 press briefing, adding the importance of swift action and a professional relationship with the South Korean government.
“(Gen. Abrams) has been able to get ahold of the situation and stop it cold,” McCarthy said. “A lot of it was these screening procedures they put in place and how quickly they moved and (got testing capability). … The 24-hour vigilance and communications – be it social media or other platforms just showed how they stayed on top of this.”
More than 5,600 miles away in northern Italy at the Army Africa Headquarters, another military installation found itself in the middle of the global pandemic.
“(Maj. Gen.) Roger Cloutier (command general) is surrounded by people who have been exposed – and quite frankly, many lost their lives – and he’s got that installation locked down,” McCarthy said. “We are so proud of him, and his leadership team and the men and women who are stationed there.
“Those overseas leaders are at the forefront of the fight,” he continued. “We’ve learned a lot from them. We’re talking to them a lot, trying to get them more support …”
Due to the COVID-19 outbreak, many exercises have been scaled back, halted or canceled completely. One of the largest land exercises in recent memory, Defender 20-Europe, is no exception.
As of last week, all movement of personnel and equipment from the U.S. to Europe ceased. “The health, safety and readiness of our military, civilians and family members is our primary concern,” officials said. “There are many details still being worked and discussed with our allies and partners.”
“We’re continually reiterating to our international allies that we are committed to exercises for the foreseeable future,” McCarthy said. “This is an extraordinary set of circumstances and we’re just trying to adjust. We'll get these back on track as soon as we get through the vaccine protocols and screening, and get to a different place.”
A domestic travel ban that halted PCS moves and temporary assignments is one of the most significant measures imposed to mitigate the exposure of COVID-19. McCarthy said it was far from a snap decision made without regard to meeting Army readiness expectations.
“We’re still looking at how we can put protocols in place and balance the challenge of social distancing with meeting end-strength goals,” he said. “End strength is critical. We don’t want to be in a position where we are a weakened force by not having end strength to deal with worldwide threats.
“In the long run, this is going to be very difficult to manage,” he said. “We’re working on the screening and the protocols to manage this. National security is a tough business. We’ve got to still be able to grow the force even under these incredibly, and quite frankly extraordinary, sets of conditions that none of us have ever faced before.”
Senior leaders are receiving information by the minute, he said. For example, the U.S. is currently on track with Italy with confirmed coronavirus cases. If those numbers continue to rise, Army leaders may reevaluate how basic training is conducted.
“Decisions are being made on a day-by-day basis,” McCarthy reaffirmed.
He urged all people, regardless of military status, to listen to the nation’s health professionals and self-isolate themselves as much as possible. At the same time, they should stay focused on what’s best for the force. Readiness initiatives like the implementation timeline of the Army Combat Fitness Test have changed, McCarthy emphasized.
Army leaders are receiving information around the clock and are not entirely sure what the next day will bring. McCarthy said they will continue to evaluate the situation as more information rolls in.
“This is a fog of war, and it’s tough,” he said.
Regarding modernization priorities, industry partners are still “bending metal and working,” he said. Just days ago, Army leaders chose Bell and Sikorsky, as well as Boeing, to move forward in the Army’s Future Long-Range Assault Aircraft program to stay ahead of the 2030 timeline to field the equipment.
COVID-19 is not the “end of the world” and it is not going to destroy the Army’s resolve the secretary vowed.
“We’re going to learn a lot more, and we’re going to continue to refine our protocols and do what we have to do to take care of our people,” McCarthy said. “We’re going to maintain the readiness to respond to global activity – it’s a very dangerous and complex world on a good day.
“Army leadership is looking at the measures we need to take to thread the needle between addressing all of the challenges we face globally, and making sure we protect our men and women and their families,” he concluded. “Have faith that were going to get through this.”