The National Guard has struggled to implement a plan to test troops flowing into and out of Washington, D.C., for Covid-19, with some Guard members being forced to find their own tests and others pressured to leave their quarantine early to report to duty.
Already, hundreds of Guard members who poured into Washington, D.C., after the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol have tested positive for Covid-19 or are quarantining in nearby hotels, three Guard sources said. Guard leadership has declined to release an official number of positive cases, but troops and lawmakers alike worry that the deployment is becoming a superspreader event.
“Ideally, these guys should all be in hotels. When they’re taking rest time, they should be taking it outside the campus with an ability to be separated and socially distanced,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) said. “Ultimately we’ve got to make sure that they’re not taking their extended rest time on campus, that they’re in hotel rooms.”
The problem was compounded on Thursday night, when thousands of troops who had been standing duty in the U.S. Capitol were told to vacate congressional buildings and take their rest breaks outside and in nearby parking garages. POLITICO obtained photos of Guard members packed together and sleeping on the ground in the garages. One unit was forced to rest in a garage with only one bathroom available for 5,000 troops.
The Senate Rules Committee is investigating the issue, with a particular focus on concerns about the Guard implementing proper coronavirus precautions, Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt, the top Republican on that panel, told POLITICO. The decision to force thousands of troops into a packed parking garage created a Covid-19 hazard, senators said.
“I think we’ve got to figure out what went wrong because I think there’s going to be a National Guard presence on campus for the foreseeable future,” Murphy added.
Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee, said Friday morning that a Capitol Police officer “issued an order without authority or without going through the chain of command,” adding: “We are going to be able to identify who that person was.”
Several senators called attention to the matter on Thursday night, with some even reaching out directly to National Guard commanders and Capitol Police officials. Murphy spoke with the Capitol Police chief, who has since denied that the department ordered the troops to vacate congressional buildings.
Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), who herself was a member of the National Guard for 22 years, said she and other lawmakers are in touch with Guard officials about ensuring a safe environment for troops stationed at the Capitol. And Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) said he was outraged over the “ingratitude” displayed toward the soldiers.
“Obviously the Senate had not gotten as involved in this because we had hoped it was being worked out between Capitol Police and the Guard,” said Murphy. “Obviously there’s some rough edges, so there’s a lot of us working on this right now.”
Guard leadership has attempted to implement a comprehensive plan to test all Guard members on arrival in Washington, D.C., and before they depart for their home station in an attempt to limit the virus’ spread, said one Guard member, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive topic. The majority of cases are asymptomatic, and originated from the troops’ home stations, the Guard member said.
In recent days, congressional leadership has made a significant push to test all 25,000 troops, both those who are continuing their mission in Washington, D.C., and those who are leaving, the Guard member also said. The goal is to test 100 percent of the force in the next few days.
But despite the Guard’s best efforts, more than 100 troops have tested positive, and several hundred are quarantining in nearby hotels after being exposed to a positive case or exhibiting symptoms.
Guard members say virus countermeasures were unevenly implemented. On arrival in Washington, D.C., several units were only given temperature checks and asked about any possible Covid-19 exposure, two Guard members told POLITICO. One Washington, D.C., Guard member said he and others were forced to get their own Covid-19 test. Others who were exposed to the virus said they had been told to disregard their quarantine or cut it short and report for duty due to the urgent need for additional troops in the days leading up to the Inauguration.
“We did not get Covid tests on arrival,” said another Guard member. “Right after the holidays they packed us together like sardines in buses and rooms for this.”
The CDC’s guidelines for quarantining after a negative test — which are recommended following any exposure to the virus because tests are not 100 percent accurate — are increasingly being “completely disregarded,” the Guard member added.
Meanwhile, social distancing is “almost impossible” in the halls of Congress, the D.C. armory and the parking garages, one guard member said, troops were packed into tight spaces that made it impossible to socially distance.
“You should have seen late-coming states scavenge for space,” another Guardsman said. “It would have made a great sitcom: people literally making offices out of hallways and any unoccupied space.”
Many of the Guard members who spoke to POLITICO said their units had been given no clear guidance on Covid-19 testing plans, either for arrival in Washington, D.C., or before they depart. The troops who are currently in quarantine will pose a “logistical challenge” as their units start to head home.
The Guard has not finalized a plan for these members, but they will most likely either stay in their hotels until their quarantine is over, or be transported home in separate vehicles with other Covid-19-positve troops, the person said.
Some Guard members, including members of the Wisconsin Air National Guard, were given the option to receive the first dose of the vaccine before deploying to Washington, D.C. Others received the vaccine last week, and still others are set to receive their first dose on Friday, said one Maryland Guard member. But the Guard does not have a standardized plan to vaccinate all 25,000 troops before they return to their home states.