Transcript

Air Force Gen. Joseph L. Lengyel, Chief of the National Guard Bureau, Holds a News Conference at the Pentagon

March 24, 2020
Air Force Gen. Joseph L. Lengyel, chief of the National Guard Bureau

AIR FORCE GEN. JOSEPH L. LENGYEL:  Hello, everyone.  OK, thanks for coming and I’m General Joe Lengyel, Chief of the National Guard Bureau.  Five days ago, I stood before you over 2,000 Guardsmen and women from 27 states were supporting the COVID-19 response efforts.  Today, that number has swelled to over 9,000 in each of the 50 states, territories and -- and the District of Columbia.

We expect these numbers will continue to grow in the coming days and weeks.  As most of you know, the President recently approved 100 percent federal funding for National Guard in some of the hardest hit states – Washington, New York, and California.

Just as important, he left control of the National Guard to the governors and the adjutants generals who are the people who know best how to apply these resources and people to fix problems in their states.  As I speak, Guardsmen and women are providing medical testing, screening, transportation, command and control, engineering, planning, and logistics throughout the country.

In 12 states, Guard members are either directly administering tests or supporting medical professionals.  The National Guard also has the ability to bring trained units and leaders to people who can take on any task.  In California, Guard leaders are managing food banks.  Our combined combat and civilian acquired skills helps to create a blueprint for an ideal military component capable of addressing a myriad of challenges presented by this COVID-19 response.

If you need us to drive trucks, fly planes, be mechanics, or plan large response efforts, the National Guard is able to adapt to whatever mission the governor may need us to.  This is a historic event that will require a historic response.

Americans have a long history of rising to the occasion.  Americans should know the National Guard has their backs throughout this crisis.  We are in this together and we'll get through this together.  And with that, I will take your questions.

STAFF:  OK.  First question, we'll go to the phone.  Bob Burns, AP?  Bob?

Q:  Thank you, General.  How many COVID cases have there been thus far among National Guard members?  And also, when you mentioned that you expect the 9,000 number to grow, can you be more specific about how many more you expect in let's say the next week or so?

GEN. LENGYEL:  Sure.  You know, I think this morning we were tracking 26 National Guard members that I've -- had actually tested positive for COVID-19 and, you know, we expect as well that number will continue to grow.

I think that, you know, it's hard to predict what the -- what the complete and total response will be.  You know, governors and adjutants generals are telling me they're planning on bringing more in the near term in the -- in the hundreds and thousands.

And so it wouldn't surprise me that, you know, by the afternoon, we'll be above 10,000.  And we seem to be increasing at a rate of somewhere about 1,000 a day over the last several days.  So I -- I would anticipate that -- that that would happen.

I think, you know, as we work through the process, as you -- as you well know, the President authorized 502(f) authority, Title 32, which is federal funding of National Guard forces that are under state control.  Not federalization of the National Guard, he's not activating the Guard, he's just giving the authority for members of the Guard to be brought and federally funded under state control.

And we're working through those issues now as -- as states submit their requests through FEMA to be in concert with the President's guidance.  It has to be a -- a FEMA approved mission.  But as those get approved, I would think that even more National Guard members will come on duty faster and sooner.

So I think that is without a doubt going to increase the numbers as we go forward in the coming days and weeks.

Q:  Thank you.

Q:  General, I just wanted to clarify on the 26 Guard who are -- tested positive, were they all in the field helping -- helping state officials or was it a mix?

GEN. LENGYEL:  No, it's been -- it's been a total mix.  I -- I have heard of one Colorado Guardsman who was actually not directly involved with touching -- touching -- with -- with administering a test but he was part of a -- a testing process.  He did test positive for it.

And -- and numerous other cases throughout.  We had one on our own staff that -- across in -- here in Arlington that tested positive.  So it's ...

Q:  I know the Guard's doing everything from -- you said food banks and transportation ...

GEN. LENGYEL:  We are, yes.

Q:  Do you anticipate, as industry ramps up the number of test kits, that you'll be much more involved in the actual medical testing effort?

GEN. LENGYEL:  Yeah, I -- I think that's still -- you know, I -- I think right now, there's two ways that we can consider getting this Title 32 funding.  One is the -- what the President said the other night in support of FEMA.  And currently, we're working an issue with direct support to HHS to do the community-based testing process.

It's -- it's unclear how that -- that process is clearly involving or inventing new and different kinds of tests that will be fielded I think in -- in the coming weeks.  Some of -- some and all of that may impact how many National Guard members need to administer that test.  We had a meeting this morning, it was, you know, kind of brought to my attention, HHS is trying to work towards more of a -- a -- a civilian answer to providing capability at those test sites.  So it's -- it's -- right now, in 12 states, we are doing some testing.  I would expect that would expand a little bit in the near term but it's unclear how big it will get beyond that.

Q:  HHS wants more civilian effort ...

GEN. LENGYEL:  Well they're trying to -- yeah, they're -- they're -- they're looking to make that a civilian kind of thing, provided they can find the capability to do it.

Q:  ... stand by ...

GEN. LENGYEL:  Yes, absolutely.  And -- and we are -- we're on -- we're doing testing right now in, like I say, 12 -- 12 separate states out there.  So we're -- there is a resource, should the -- should the HHS need to help, since governors want to do it, if they need to expand the testing as -- you know, right now it's popping big in New York City and it's big on the West Coast and -- but we're watching Florida grow, we're watching Louisiana grow and we're watching many other cities in the country grow. 

So we're a resource available to governors to do that.

STAFF:  Meghann.

Q:  Meghann Myers, Military Times.  So under Title 32 the National Guard is able to perform some law enforcement functions.  What might those look like in this scenario?

GEN. LENGYEL:  So I'll just say to begin with again, to dispel the rumor that there is no discussion, there's no plan, there's no -- no plan to use the National Guard in Title 32 or state active duty status or in any other status to do quarantine or enforce shelter in place operations. 

Posse comitatus does not apply to the National Guard in Title 32 status. So we can be federal funded, under state control, and do law enforcement as a -- as a mission set if our governors and communities need us to do. 

But you know once again, no plan to the use the National Guard in any kind of large-scale lockdown capacity of the United States of America.

STAFF:  OK.  We'll go to the phones.  Dave Martin, CBS.

Q:  General, you said you anticipate the number of National Guard called up by governors to increase by 1,000 in a day or so coming -- in the coming days.  Do you have projections of where the guard is most likely to be called out in the largest numbers after the -- the three states that have, you know, been the focus of the -- the outbreak.

GEN. LENGYEL:  So David, you know I think the 1,000 a day has been what I have seen over the past week or so.  And you know I got a note before I walked in here from the Adjutant General of Arizona.  And they're at a couple hundred now and they'll be at 750 tomorrow. 

Massachusetts governor as you saw, Governor Bakker just announced that he was authorizing up to 2,000 National Guard members to come on duty.  Maryland governor now is authorized his state to increase.  They're at 1,500 and still going -- going north.

So more and more states than -- we're happy to share them with you as we get them and we get the projections.  But more and more states are incrementally adding members of the National Guard to do it.  It's interesting and I'll share with you the Arizona folks are -- are coming on board and they are doing things.

For instance, in -- you know they got trucks showing up at stores, nobody to unload the trucks.  So to keep the shelves stocked so people can do it; some -- in some cases they're using National Guard members to keep -- assist if you will that supply chain to -- to keep product available to people in the communities. 

So I expect it will continue to grow state by state.  Louisiana's another one that's in a growth mode right now.  So we'll keep you informed as these numbers grow everyday.

STAFF:  Jennifer?

Q:  Sir, do you expect National Guard to be involved in mortuary affairs in anyway in these states.  Are you planning for that?  Are you setting up locations for that kind of situation?  And also have you been asked to start law enforcement duties in any states?

GEN. LENGYEL:  We have not.  We are not doing any law enforcement activities to my knowledge at the present time. But again, should anybody need us to do it; we have the capacity to do it. I think mortuary affairs as a skill set, we in the National Guard do have a unique unit called a fatality support and recovery team, FSRT.

And I've been told that some states have started to look at the potential that they may -- should they need that.  They can use that.  But no state to my knowledge has brought them up yet but I do know there are some states that are considering accessing that special kind of unit that existed in the National Guard.

Q:  Mike Glenn with Washington Times.  These 26 cases that you've identified, your people are -- you are different from active duty in that they have medical people both in their civilian lives as well as their military lives.

Are these all -- theses 26 cases, were they all confirmed -- you know done by medical -- or military medical personnel or was it did you talk to the civilian doctors and you sort of put that number together. 

GEN. LENGYEL:  So I -- I don't have the statistics for you on exactly what the source of their testing was.  Some of them were not active duty.  They were National Guard members who were in a M-Day status, not activated.  So in -- in most cases they would use a civilian member to do their tests.

Q:  (Inaudible) ...

GEN. LENGYEL:  Yeah.  Through the normal command channels they would report it and it becomes a special information report. Yes.

Q:  I got you.  OK.

STAFF:  OK.  We'll go back to the phone.  Idrees with Reuters.  OK.  Move to the next.  So Rose Thayer, Stars and Stripes.

Q:  Hey there.  I had a question about when soldiers go off active duty from the guard and they go back to their communities.  Are they going to do any sort of self quarantine at home or any sort of follow up to insure they're not bringing coronavirus back with them?

GEN. LENGYEL:  So I think that, you know, they are -- they are take all the health protection measures that every other person is that goes around, they're trying to avoid where they are.  They're washing their hands, large groups, all of those kinds of things.  They are -- they are coming to work and unless they have some reason to believe that they may have been infected or some other -- other reason to believe that they are a danger to themselves or others there -- there's no special procedures from coming on -- off of guard duty and going back to your home or your civilian world at night.  Over.

STAFF:  OK.  Next up we'll go to Anna from the Washington Examiner.

Q:  Hey, thanks for the call.  In terms of duties that the Guard could be activated for and in certain states.  Let's say a state wanted to do something with -- with making sure people are not out on the streets in a busy city or something.  What would that look like if the Guard were activated for -- for social distancing sort of things. 

GEN. LENGYEL:  So you mean in a law enforcement kind of scenario, is that what you're asking?

Q:  Yes. 

GEN. LENGYEL:  So I think that, you know, the way that scenario most likely works out is they would be matched up with some civilian law enforcement agency that had jurisdiction or control over some particular part that they were concerned about.  And they may need to augment that with National Guard members whether they need more people or maybe the force of police officers became less available to the community.

So they wanted to augment them with National Guard members.  They would take their direction on what they were going to do and tell the people the -- from whatever section they were going to.  That has not happened yet but when we do civilian law enforcement, we generally do it under the control and in support of the local, legal authorities in whatever community we're working in.  So that's how that would work.

STAFF:  Next up, Carol Rosenberg, New York Times.  OK.  Let's see.  Sylvie, AFP, you with us?

Q:  Can you hear me now?

Q:  Yes, hello.  Carol, you are on.  I leave you, Carol.

Q:  Thank you.  General, thank you for the opportunity.  My question is about test results for the guard who are deployed.  Do you have any information about turnaround time from swab to test results.  There seems to be a big lag time for the remote bases and other certain deployed personnel.

GEN. LENGYEL:  Carrol, I will have to get back to you on that information.  I'm not aware of any lag time from any member that -- all -- all of my positives I believe are here in the continental United States.

I'm not aware of deployed positives of those 26 members.  But -- and I certainly haven't heard of any excessive lag time from test to analysis.  But I will get that back -- get that information and get back to you, over.

Q:  Thank you, General.

STAFF:  All right, back to you Sylvie.

Q:  Thank you.  General, I'm going to ask you the question I already asked you last week to see if there is an evolution.  Do you have enough equipment and do you need -- is there something that you need more particularly?

GEN. LENGYEL:  So, I think last week I probably said the same thing.  I mean we have concerns surely like the rest of the enterprise dealing with this problem over long-term supply of personal protective equipment.  Nobody is doing any mission that they don't have the appropriate protective equipment for to wear.

In fact, I saw a story last night, a piece of information from the Adjutant General of Minnesota who had 81,000 N95 masks that he was able to contribute to local hospitals and -- and alike.  So, I think that for us in the mission sets that we're doing, we're not administering tests without appropriate equipment.

We're not handling people – or potential patients that may be positive without appropriate equipment.  But like everyone we have concerns over the long-term availability of PPE.  And we're working through those like everybody else is.

Q:  Right and follow-up, the -- I -- I saw yesterday an interview of a doctor in New York who said that for example he doesn't change his mask as often as he should because he has to be careful.  He -- he doesn't have enough.  That -- my question is more do you use your equipment exactly the same way as you used to do or do you try to spare them?

GEN. LENGYEL:  So, I -- I saw that same doctor's interview and I'm not aware of any -- anybody using their equipment in other than the recommended technique on how to use it.

And -- and so, I'm sure -- I'm sure that people are trying to be as smart and -- and as efficient as they can preserving the equipment to the best that they can do for this knowing that this is going to take certainly weeks maybe months as -- as we work through the issues of supply of -- of personal protective equipment.

But no one that I know of is -- no National Guard member has been asked or been put in a position to do any job and use their -- their equipment then any -- other then the recommended way.

STAFF:  Okay, to the floor. Jennifer?

Q:  I -- I'd just like to follow-up.  General, last week we heard that the Air National Guard had flown to Italy to get nearly a million swabs for testing.  Have there been more flights like that and why don't you use the Air National Guard to go get PPE from other countries that might have a surplus?

GEN. LENGYEL:  Well, I can assure you that if -- if we find stockpiles of -- of other countries that have PPE and they're available and willing to give it to us, I feel quite certain that we'll be able to go and get it.  I'm not aware of anybody offering up PPE around the world that we can do that.

The Air National Guard as you mentioned went and got a million swabs for the test kits.  And so far I haven't heard of any other deployed use of that but surely if we needed to use those equipment to -- to get the appropriate equipment I'm sure we'd be doing it.

STAFF:  Okay, we've got time for two more.  Jeff Schogol, Task and Purpose?

Q:  Thank you.  General, thank you for doing this.  You said repeatedly that the mobilization of the National Guard is not the precursor to a massive quarantine.  Can you talk about why the rumors about martial law and the quarantine persist?

And also does the president have the authority to federalize the National Guard and use them as law enforcement officers by invoking the Insurrection Act?  Thank you.

GEN. LENGYEL:  Right.  Okay.  Well, let -- let me think.  The first question was why are these rumors out there?  Was that the first question?

To that I -- I just -- I don't know.  I've seen -- I've seen people portray video clippings of trains with humvees and equipment rolling down the railroad tracks and making comments that that was mobilization of National Guard to move into big cities and quarantine the place.  It's just -- it's just not true.

I mean it's -- it's just not out there.  I'm sure -- I saw the secretary and the chairman address that question earlier in their press conference.  So, some of it is just social media doing what they do.  Some of it may be bad actors around the world trying to portray unrest and bad information.  We don't -- we don't know what that is.

And the Insurrection Act's a unique part of -- I mean, should an Insurrection Act be declared, I think that would have to happen first.  And the president mobilizing us -- I just -- I don't think that that's even in the realm of the possible.  So I don't -- I -- I'd rather not even address that, over.

STAFF:  Okay.  Got time for one more.  We'll go to Trace (inaudible), Newsy.

Q:  Yes, good afternoon.  Thank you so much for taking my question. I actually just interviewed a couple units who there were a lot of concerns not from the unit per se but from others that taking medical staff from the civilian sector and having them be activated for the Guard may cause shortages.  What can you say to civilians to ease that concern?

GEN. LENGYEL:  So, I can tell you that the Department of Defense is very -- very well aware of what accessing the reserve component medical capacity does.  I've heard Secretary Esper say at numerous times that all of these professionals, medical professionals have careers and lives in -- in the civilian medical sector.

So, to the degree that we can avoid it, we want to not mobilize reserve component people away from their civilian jobs.  So that's -- that's -- that's really what I would tell you.  There'll -- there'll be some that has to -- that has to have happen.

I would tell you, I have a doctor on my staff who's an emergency room doctor in Missouri.  And I brought him here to Washington D.C. to help me deal with this and make the right decision about National Guard members and the medical issues that associate with them.

There'll be some unavoidable I'd say use of reserve component medical capability, just going to happen.  But we're well aware of the issues and I think that as a department we're dialed into mitigating those issues to the degree that we can.

Q:  Yes, sir.  And -- and I have a follow-up to that question.  So, the -- the units that I spoke to, they said that closures of clinics in the area were actually creating opportunities for medical staff to actually volunteer.

So, there is not necessarily a shortage.  The shortage is actually being created by these clinic closures.  So, are there any other instances where certain closures are actually creating opportunities for individuals to come and volunteer?

GEN. LENGYEL:  No.  Where was that?  And I'll -- I'll try and track that down and see if those folks can -- can come and we've got any National Guard members that might be looking for work.

I can tell you that the reserve component has put out a message to all of our medical folks in -- in the reserve component to say if you are available and you're not otherwise occupied in your civilian career we'd like to know about it and -- and access your skills elsewhere and make them available for where they're needed around the country but I am not aware of large-scale closure of medical clinics, although it doesn't surprise me that there might be some.

Q:  Thank you. (Inaudible)

GEN. LENGYEL:  Thank you.

STAFF:  Thank you very much for your time.

GEN. LENGYEL:  Thank you everyone. I'm sure I'll see you again.

STAFF:  Yes.