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800 Pa. National Guard members part of 'war' vs. coronavirus, including 193rd out of HIA

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Just more than 800 Pennsylvania National Guard members are involved in a variety of missions throughout the state in what the Guard’s top general called the “war” against the coronavirus.

Guard members delivered 85,000 meals to residents in a 24-hour period last week and was expected to deliver another 97,000 in the next 24, Maj. Gen. Anthony Carrelli, Pennsylvania’s adjutant general, said during a tele-conference briefing to reporters April 10.

RELATED STORY: Air National Guard’s 193rd, based at HIA, helps at Montgomery County coronavirus testing site

As of Wednesday, National Guard transportation units had delivered more than 225,000 meals and driven more than 12,000 miles to areas all over Pennsylvania, Guard spokesman Lt. Col. Keith Hickox told the Press & Journal on Friday. Deliveries continue each day.

Guard members are also providing direct assistance to food banks, unloading medical supplies that come in and transporting them throughout the state, working with the Army Corps of Engineers to set up alternate medical facilities where hospitals are bracing for a surge, and helping to stand up and staff drive-through COVID-19 testing centers.

“This is an unprecedented emergency. We are well beyond any script that we have” regarding being able to plan for missions ahead of time, Carrelli said. “This has way exceeded anything” the state Guard has ever seen before. “We have declared a war on this virus in the commonwealth of Pennsylvania.”

As an example of how the Guard has had to improvise and be nimble on the fly, Carrelli referred to one of the earliest missions the Guard had been tasked with in the crisis — the 193rd Special Operations Wing helping bring home a flight full of people who had been quarantined after being on a cruise ship.

Carrelli said the federal government had contracted to provide the flight and the decision was made to bring the plane into Harrisburg International Airport where the 193rd is based, on March 17.

The 193rd “hosted that entire mission and provided a lot of the (Guard) manpower” involved in transporting the 38 Pennsylvania residents to their homes throughout the state, the general said.

Toward the end of March, about 40 members of the 193rd were among about 80 Guardsmen who helped stand up and run the first COVID-19 drive through test site in Montgomery County.

“We were given (that mission) with very little notice,” Carelli said. “We didn’t have time” to provide specialized medical training to soldiers and airmen before having to stand up the center.

“We went right to the 193rd medical team. They are already trained in protective training in a medical setting,” and as a result members of the 193rd working along with other airmen from elsewhere in the state were about to stand up the testing center about 30 hours after getting the orders, the general said.

Carelli said the drive-through test center in Montgomery County has been one of the most effective in the nation, in terms of the number of people who have been tested — about 5,000. That site was shut down and moved to another location in Montgomery County.

The missions the Guard members are sent out on originate with requests from county emergency management directors that go to the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency. PEMA then decides whether it makes sense for the Guard to do the mission.

“We have taken every single mission” that has been presented to the Guard, Carelli said.

On Saturday, Pennsylvania Department of Health Secretary Rachel Levine said several nursing homes are being assisted by the medical support arm of the Pennsylvania National Guard.

“They are working to help provide care to patients in those nursing homes and to help them with their infection control procedures,” she said.

Gov. Tom Wolf has authority to activate the entire state National Guard force — about 19,000 soldiers and airmen. Carelli does not expect that to happen.

The Guard also continues to be part of and prepare for its federal mission of assisting in the nation’s overall military effort.

More than 1,000 Pennsylvania National Guardsmen are continuing to train to prepare for deployments at various locations overseas, Carelli said.

He would not get more specific about which units and where they are going for security reasons, but said that these preparations continue unabated despite the COVID-19 pandemic.

In addition, he has a few hundred National Guard members already deployed overseas, some who have been there for from six months to a year.

Their homecoming has been delayed as the Department of Defense has put a 60-day freeze on the movement of troops returning to the United States from overseas, because of the pandemic, Carelli said.

Also, these soldiers and airmen stationed overseas are being subjected to many of the precautions and guidance such as social distancing, as “this virus is all across the world,” Carelli said.

National Guard training has been affected, as a number of training exercises that the Pennsylvania soldiers and airmen were scheduled to participate in have been canceled due to the pandemic.

These include exercises in Europe, California and at other active duty installations in the United States such as Fort Drum, New York; and Fort Bragg, North Carolina, Carelli said.

However, veterans benefits are still being provided through the Pennsylvania Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, which also comes under Carelli.

“We are still accepting applications and still sending out benefits checks,” he said.

DMVA also secured a waiver allowing eligible vets to apply for certain benefits more than just one time a year, in light of the pandemic.

Carelli said there are Guard members who have tested positive for COVID-19, although he would not provide details for unit security purposes.