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Why The Kansas National Guard Ramped Down As COVID-19 Ramped Up

Kansas National Guard troops use a helicopter bucket to fight wildfires in November. This year state National Guards have faced unprecedented duties as they have dealt with natural disasters, overseas deployments and the pandemic.
Kansas National Guard
Kansas National Guard troops use a helicopter bucket to fight wildfires in November. This year state National Guards have faced unprecedented duties as they have dealt with natural disasters, overseas deployments and the pandemic.

While COVID-19 deaths are surging, the National Guard’s response is not. Federal funding for pandemic duty is in question, and a major new challenge is looming on the horizon.

The Kansas National Guard conducted 28,000 COVID-19 tests and distributed almost 40,000 cases of protective masks, gloves and gowns. Guardsmen have also packaged a staggering 8 million meals. But even as hospitals fill with COVID-19 patients and deaths mount, the guard's pandemic mission is going the other direction.

Col. Michael Venerdi, director of Joint Staff for the Kansas National Guard, says the pandemic mission has stretched throughout most of the year.

"The mission's ramping down from a total of 670 at the maximum capacity of this event, to today, just the 117," says Venerdi.

Across the country, state guards have downsized their pandemic operations. At the peak, more than 47,000 guardsmen were actively fighting the pandemic across the country. Now just 21,000 are on the mission.

There are three major reasons for the decline: improved local response, questions about funding, and a need for guardsmen with medical expertise at home.

For instance, Venerdi says that state and local agencies have taken over much of the work the guard picked up on an emergency basis earlier in the pandemic.

"That's a good example of the community stepping up and finding permanent solutions as opposed to the temporary solution that really our soldiers and airmen can provide," says Venerdi.

While hospitals are filling up with COVID patients in many parts of the country, the guard's ability to help with hospital staffing is limited.

Brig. Gen. Nick Ducich, vice director for operations with the National Guard Bureau in Washington, says doctors and nurses in the guard are already fighting the pandemic.

"The vast majority of our medical professionals actually currently serve in the hospitals and medical care facilities existing. So we'd only compound the problem if we were to pull them, pull them out and utilize them in a different way," says Ducich.

There's another problem coming up. Federal funding and the presidential authorization for the guard's pandemic mission expires at the end of the month.

"The current mission assignment ends 31 December," says Ducich. "So without an extension, the soldiers' and airmen's orders will end, and that's part of the reason you see a decline in the number serving."

Ducich expects more funding to come through. Roy Robinson, a retired brigadier general, who runs the National Guard Association of the United States, isn't so sure.

"It's a real issue," warns Robinson. "We've come to the edge of this cliff three or four times in the last 10 months."

Guard troops coming off pandemic duty need two weeks to quarantine, so Robinson says time is running out to reauthorize the mission.

Even if the guard can't do much to back up doctors and nurses, there is plenty left to do, including the herculean task of vaccinating as many Americans as possible.

"We've never had to immunize the number of people at one time and within such a short period of time as we will have to do for COVID-19," says Trina Sheets, executive director of the National Emergency Management Association.

Sheets says many state emergency managers are banking on National Guard to help with the vaccination effort. "All of the States are well underway with their planning for the implementation of the COVID-19 vaccines, and there is a clear role for the National Guard to play," says Sheets.

Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly and most other governors have formally requested an extension of federal funding. Still, there's been little indication from the Trump administration about whether that will happen. President-elect Joe Biden promises to fund the missions once he takes office.

I’ve been at KCUR almost 30 years, working partly for NPR and splitting my time between local and national reporting. I work to bring extra attention to people in the Midwest, my home state of Kansas and of course Kansas City. What I love about this job is having a license to talk to interesting people and then crafting radio stories around their voices. It’s a big responsibility to uphold the truth of those stories while condensing them for lots of other people listening to the radio, and I take it seriously. Email me at frank@kcur.org or find me on Twitter @FrankNewsman.
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