Soldiers from the Michigan National Guard provide free drive-through COVID-19 testing in Baldwin, Mich.,, Aug. 14, 2020. Medics from the Michigan National Guard’s Task Force 182 have been providing the testing throughout the state over the last three months. Photo courtesy the Department of Defense
Soldiers from the Michigan National Guard provide free drive-through COVID-19 testing in Baldwin, Mich.,, Aug. 14, 2020. Medics from the Michigan National Guard’s Task Force 182 have been providing the testing throughout the state over the last three months.

The services of distributing and administering testing have been essential, but the biggest operation—distributing the vaccine—is yet to come.

LANSING, Mich.—Some of the most important tools fighting a pandemic, especially during an active outbreak like the one Michigan is currently experiencing, are widespread testing and contact tracing to identify who has been exposed to the virus. 

And in Michigan, one face of that has been the National Guard which has provided testing services and support to Michigan food banks.

One of the soldiers on the front lines of the pandemic was Senior Airman Tanner Hostetler, 217th Air Component Operations Squadron intelligence analyst. Hostetler was originally part of the ROTC program at Western Michigan University, but when he found a National Guard base near where his parents lived he changed his course somewhat to serve Michigan more directly.

“This is a really unique opportunity,” he said. “The whole point of being in the Guard is that we serve the federal government and the state. Trying to give back to the state and local community is the other half of the Guard. It feels really good to do that.”

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He first began missions supporting the state through the coronavirus in May. He joins nearly 750 others on the ground in Michigan to help families through the pandemic. 

“The members of the Michigan National Guard are experienced and proven professionals,” said Maj. Gen. Paul Rogers, adjutant general for the Guard, said in a statement.  “Our units frequently train and respond side-by-side with state and local emergency responders, making them well suited for domestic operations. The National Guard has unique capabilities, providing local first responders with additional resources to combat COVID-19.”

On the Ground in Michigan 

On the ground, it has been a common sight throughout the pandemic: National Guard members across the state administering coronavirus tests to Michiganders. In rural parts of Michigan, testing remains not reliably available. Coopersville, Grand Haven, Harrisville, Munising, Newberry, and St. Ignace all recently hosted drive-thru testing provided by the Guard. 

Beyond testing over 200,000 Michiganders, the Guard has also delivered 14 million pounds of food to Michigan food banks during the pandemic. 

Army Sgt. Austin Topolski lead a testing task force for the Guard for months during the pandemic. He told the Department of Defense that he stayed on so long to train those reporting in to continue testing in August. 

“We want to stay strong enough to consistently do the mission for the state of Michigan, keeping us viable and busy,” Topolski said.

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Other guard members talked about how successful their operations were in Three Rivers or how crucial it is for Michiganders to see the Guard helping fight the pandemic.

“I believe these missions are important to the public,” said Army Spc. Nathan McCann, a medic with the Michigan National Guard. “It helps ease the minds of some, knowing that there’s constant statewide testing going on.”

That sentiment was shared by Rogers.

“With everything going on; the pandemic continuing, having the National Guard available as an asset is very, very important,” Rogers told Michigan Radio. “In regard to the pandemic, we’re largely there supporting the Department of Health and Human Services. They’re the lead, we support them. But having that authority to be reimbursed by the federal government is critical for allowing us to truly support the needs of the state during a crisis.”

The Work Left to Do

But that last part, the federal reimbursement that allows the Guard’s operations to be funded fully, is at risk. Title 32 authority, which is the mechanism used to allow states to use the National Guard in response to emergencies, is set to expire Dec. 31, meaning as 2021 cstarts Michigan will lose this critical part of its pandemic response. And there couldn’t be a worse time for that to happen. 

Pfizer expects its vaccine for the coronavirus will be beginning mass production in December, meaning the role the Guard plays in testing could be refocused on inoculation and, slowly, bringing the pandemic to an end. But even on the best timescale that process will extend well past the expiration date of the Guard’s presence in Michigan. 

Gov. Whitmer has called on President Trump to extend the Guard’s presence in Michigan through at least the end of March, marking one full year since the beginning of the pandemic emergency in Michigan.

“The Michigan National Guard remains a crucial part of the state’s emergency response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the Guard is vital to our ongoing recovery as well,” said Gov. Whitmer in a statement. “Michigan, as in many other states, is experiencing a marked incline in our COVID-19 positive cases across the state. To provide a thorough response, Michigan has been heavily relying on the Michigan National Guard’s efforts to perform widespread testing and screening, distributing personal protective equipment, and assisting at numerous food banks across the state. That’s why we need extended use of the Michigan National Guard through March 31, 2020.” 

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Rogers agrees that his women and men are needed in Michigan passed the end of the year. 

“I’m hopeful everybody understands how devastating this crisis is,” he said. “I’m hopeful we will get approved for 100%, and that we can be brought to bear without any hesitation in the response for the state.”

As for how they’ll assist with the vaccination campaign, Rogers left that for the state to decide. 

“We’re always there in support. So, we will work with the Department of Health and Human Services to help lay out the plan to figure out where we could add value where we’re necessary, and that will determine what our role will be,” he said. “But we are prepared to support any role from distribution to storage.  Anything we can do to help, we are ready to help.”