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Chief Of National Guard Says It Is Ready For Coronavirus Crisis

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

States across the country are ramping up their responses to the coronavirus outbreak. That means setting up mobile testing sites, constructing new medical field facilities with more hospital beds and getting protective gear to the places where it's most needed.

The National Guard is helping with all of the above. More than 8,000 members of the guard have mobilized in all 50 states, Puerto Rico, Guam and Washington, D.C. And President Trump this weekend asked the National Guard to activate more troops in New York, California and Washington, the three states hit hardest by the outbreak. He said that the federal government could cover - would cover a hundred percent of that cost.

General Joseph Lengyel is the chief of the National Guard Bureau, and he told me that members of the National Guard have a wide range of missions on the ground in the time of coronavirus.

JOSEPH LENGYEL: The beautiful thing about the National Guard is, you know, we have all of the combat mission skill sets. So if you need us to, you know, drive trucks or fly airplanes or be mechanics or be communicators or be planners, we're doing some of those things using our equipment and our transportation assets to move people around in various states.

But we also have the ability because we bring trained units and leaders and people that can be - take on, really, any task that you need people to do. Some people are - for instance, in California, they're managing food banks. Arizona recently started using some National Guard members to help stock shelves. You know, I think - you know, the trickle-down economic impacts of this, where people can't come to work or can't deliver, can't get there for whatever reason - governors are using the National Guard to do those kinds of things.

CHANG: How much will the National Guard be involved in, say, testing people for coronavirus?

LENGYEL: Well, we're doing some of that, too. You know, 12 states so far have set up their community-based testing drive-through facilities. And in 12 states, they're using National Guard members to actually either directly administer the test or support medical professionals or other professionals there that are administering the tests. And we are there to make sure that we can support them, provide order to traffic flows, transport, you know, things to labs to be analyzed for whether or not they're positive. So we're involved in testing directly in at least 12 states, and I expect that to grow over the coming days.

CHANG: At the moment, there are more than 8,000 National Guard troops dispersed across the country. Do you think that you will have enough members ready and able to mobilize if this goes on for, say, months and months from now?

LENGYEL: Yeah, I do. I do. I think that - you know, most people don't realize the National Guard's 450,000 people. So you know, I think - you know, yesterday the president did some helpful things by authorizing federal funding for National Guard units and members in state status...

CHANG: Right.

LENGYEL: ...Which means they're still...

CHANG: Usually, the expense is shared between states and the federal government, but now the federal government's taking over the cost.

LENGYEL: That is correct. In some cases - not in all cases - but in some cases, the National Guard will be authorized to put their members on federal funding and execute missions assigned by their governor.

CHANG: Let me ask you this. As you say, individual governors have wide discretion on how to use the guard members in their individual states. Can you explain how that is preferable to a more coordinated federal response with the National Guard?

LENGYEL: Sure. A couple reasons for that - one is each individual state has a different problem set to deal with. Some are, you know, being overrun with new positives and lots of sick people, like, currently, New York and Washington and a growing number in California. So every state's problem set is not the same.

And people who have studied disaster response - it doesn't matter whether it's a hurricane or flood or fire. People that have studied how this works - the response is always better when the experts on the ground at the point of the emergency are making decisions on how to apply resources and allocate people and equipment and funds so that the - you can get quicker the resource you need to fix the problem.

CHANG: Now, obviously, being deployed in these communities poses a health risk for the guard members themselves. Already, several members of the guard have tested positive for the coronavirus. What steps are you taking to protect your people at this point?

LENGYEL: So, you know, we're complying with all of the health protection activities that everyone else, hopefully, across the nation is complying with. The department has put out policies about, hey, let's not congregate and let's not have meetings more than six people; let's not have unnecessary gathering.

We are part of the military. Right now, we have 30,000 members of the National Guard who are deployed throughout the globe - in the Middle East, in the Pacific - all around the globe. And some still have ongoing training requirements that they need to fulfill those deployment schedules, and those are still ongoing. But unless it's mission-essential for people to come and gather, then we are doing social distancing. We are doing telework where possible. We're not doing unnecessary training events. And mission-essential means that if you don't do it, the mission fails.

CHANG: But when it comes to personal protective equipment - you know, things like gloves, masks, gowns - are you confident that there will be enough of that for National Guard troops in the weeks and perhaps months to come?

LENGYEL: Well, I'm confident that's an - that it's an issue that we're going to have to carefully manage and deal with in the weeks and months to come. You know, I sense that over time, we will find ways to acquire more of the PPE equipment.

CHANG: Personal protective equipment.

LENGYEL: But in the near term, we're watching it very, very carefully. And we don't have unlimited supplies. And that's why, you know, it's important that as they call us to do missions, if they're missions that require us to be in close contact with people that think they may be infected or positive with the coronavirus, that we will have the appropriate protective equipment that is available.

We won't ask anybody, obviously, to do anything that could put them in harm's way unnecessarily. And you know, I think that's a fear and a concern of all of the first responders and the whole...

CHANG: Right.

LENGYEL: ...Medical apparatus. We want to make sure that we very carefully plan and deploy those resources to the place where they can save the most lives.

CHANG: Now, there are many members of the National Guard who are health care workers. They're doctors. They are nurses. Will these people be asked to mobilize for the National Guard, or will they be allowed to stay in their communities so they can be used as frontline health care workers?

LENGYEL: Well, I think, you know, we're very aware of the fact that our reservists have civilian careers, and they're overwhelmingly employed where they live. And so we are trying very hard not to mobilize some of them and take them out of their civilian hospitals where they're providing care to their communities, but some will certainly move.

I have a joint surgeon that's a doctor who has a practice in emergency medicine in Missouri, and I called him to Washington, D.C., to work on my staff, to help me make the right decisions and deal with this. There will be some that actually have to come and be deployed to make us be able to be as responsive as we need to. And you know, as our medical apparatus becomes part of the response, then, you know, we'll access them where we have to.

CHANG: Well, I wish you and your troops the best of luck in the weeks and months to come.

LENGYEL: Well, thank you, Ailsa. We'll need it, but we're ready to do it. We're always ready, always there in the guard, as I always say it.

CHANG: General Joseph Lengyel is the chief of the National Guard Bureau.

Thank you very much for taking the time to speak with us today.

LENGYEL: Thank you, Ailsa - appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.