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West Virginia may have to cover some costs of National Guard deployment

A West Virginia National Guard Soldier waits for local citizens to arrive to be tested for COVID-19 on May 22, 2020 in Charleston, W.Va. The WVNG's Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear and Explosive (CBRNE) Battalion, the 35th Civil Support Team (CST), and the 35th Enhanced Response Force Package (CERFP), which make up Task Force CRE, and Task Force Medical personnel are highly trained in operating in a "contaminated environment" and have conducted more than 3,000 tests for COVID-19 in 87 lane support missions since the beginning of our response 70 days ago. (U.S. Air National Guard Photo by Staff Sgt. Caleb Vance)

CHARLESTON — West Virginia could be one of 48 states and territories that will have to shell out money for the deployment of its National Guard, even as the state relies heavily on guard members for pandemic response.

Gov. Jim Justice said he was participating in a phone call Wednesday afternoon with Mark Esper, secretary of the U.S. Department of Defense, where he would advocate for full federal funding for the National Guard during the state of emergency in place for the pandemic.

“When I get on the call with him I promise you I will emphatically express my opinion…that these great people need support all the time,” Justice said.

President Donald Trump issued a memorandum Monday requiring all states and territories except Florida and Texas to cover 25 percent of the costs for federal support of National Guard deployments for COVID-19 response starting Aug. 21. The memorandum extends guard deployments through Dec. 31.

“Some way, somehow, if we have to find the 25 percent of the dollars, we’ll find it, but I’m not supportive of that,” Justice said. “For crying out loud, to me our nation needs to stand steadfast with our guard because of the job they do every day.”

According to Maj. Gen. James Hoyer, adjutant general of the West Virginia National Guard, the change would cost the state more than $7.26 million through the rest of the calendar year to keep the guard deployed at current levels.

Hoyer said the guard is preparing in case the state has to pay the remaining 25 percent.

“We’ve been working diligently to address if we do need to address that,” Hoyer said. “As the governor said, he’s been pretty adamant about going back and asking the federal government to revisit this.”

While National Guards operate under orders from governors through adjutant generals, guard members across the country are operating under Title 32 deployments. Title 32 orders allow National Guard members to operate at full-time capacity for operational activities, including natural disasters, homeland security and protection of infrastructure.

Title 32 allows the Secretary of Defense to provide federal funding to governors to use National Guard assets. Title 32 also provides benefits through the G.I. Bill, health care and workers’ compensation to guard members.

“Part of the reason the governor and I pushed so hard for the Title 32 status is if we have a guardsman injured during this event just like any other event, if they are in state active duty status, then we have to focus on taking care of them under workers’ compensation. It also limits their benefits under the G.I. Bill,” Hoyer said.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Title 32 federal funding pays for as much as $9 million per 1,000 guard members. States receive 75 percent of their funding through a Federal Emergency Management Agency Public Assistance. States with 2 percent of their guard members deployed can receive a waiver for the remaining 25 percent. The federal C.A.R.E.S. Act also appropriated $1.4 billion for guard deployments for the pandemic.

The original Title 32 order was set to expire on June 24, one day before many guard members would have qualified for federal benefits due to serving 90 days or more. The order was extended at the end of May by Trump.

The West Virginia National Guard has been operating for the last 146 days on various coronavirus response efforts. There are more than 400 guard members on active duty in the state serving in a multitude of roles as of Wednesday, with more than 700 guard members deployed during the spring. Justice ordered the guard to provide assistance to the state on March 13. Justice issued a state of emergency for the pandemic on March 16.

Since March, guard members have provided assistance with epidemiology with the Department of Health and Human Resources, trained businesses on the proper use of personal protective equipment, decontaminated various forms of personal protective equipment for re-use, made and designed new face masks, and assisted with feeding programs for students and families. Guard members have also been active in testing sites around the state and in nursing homes.

All told, the guard has performed 1,845 COVID-19 missions since the end of July. These include performing 33,151 coronavirus tests, packaging and delivering more than 345,000 meals, shipping more than 13.6 million pieces of personal protective equipment to all 55 counties, and manufacturing more than 168,000 cloth face masks and isolation gowns.

As of last month, more than 32,000 National Guard members are deployed for COVID-19 duties in all 50 states and the territories of Guam, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. That’s not including guard members on overseas deployments, which brings the total up to 69,000.

“I think what our National Guard has done is unbelievable,” Justice said. “Without any question, we should support our National Guard’s effort because of what they have done for each and every one of us every blooming day.”

(Adams can be contacted at sadams@newsandsentinel.com)

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