Washington National Guard to Staff COVID-19 Contact Tracing Program Only Until June 24?

compiled by Emerald Staff


Wednesday, Governor Jay Inslee announced Washington State’s COVID-19 contact tracing program. Over 700 National Guard members have been trained to do much of this labor-intensive work — at least until June 24. 

Tuesday, national media revealed that over 40,000 National Guard members’ deployment across the country ends on June 24 — one day short of qualifying for early retirement or education benefits. This includes the 700-plus Guard members already trained and starting to conduct contact tracing here in Washington. 

These are the soldiers who built hospitals in parks, convention halls and sports arenas,  delivered protective equipment to hospitals, bagged donations at food banks and delivered coronavirus victim’s bodies to makeshift morgues. Hundreds of National Guard members are doing other essential work here in Washington. According to Politico, they have also conducted more than 1,600 COVID-19 tests, assembled 28,000 test kits and delivered nearly 14 million pounds of food to food banks and struggling families. 

News of the deadline generated swift outrage from Capitol Hill. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawai’i) who served in Iraq and ran for president called the June 24 deadline a “ … despicable path of intentionally cutting these service members’ orders at 89 days (90 days provides the benefits) just to pinch a few pennies.”

Max Rose (D-New York) also a veteran and captain in the New York National Guard said this: “Intentionally ending orders one day short of a deadline for National Guard soldiers to receive benefits for their heroic sacrifices is the definition of heartless.”

On Wednesday’s Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell, Rose was credited with leading efforts to get  the Trump Administration to step away from this deadline. Rose said it is not yet confirmed. “No one is doing a victory lap. They did it to cut costs on the backs of soldiers.” Rose had only just heard the news himself when, he said, he started getting calls from his Guard buddies who were demoralized by the same news they had received. He went on to make clear that the National Guard’s work is not done; they are still needed for many COVID-19 response efforts and relief work — as Inslee’s announcement confirms — and reminded viewers that these Guard members are absolutely committed to serving the country and not able to be home with their families. 

Here in western Washington, Lt. Colonel Steve Hobbs is commanding the first 351 Washington National Guard members on this special contract tracing assignment. They have been trained in a precise privacy-conscious curriculum and will join experienced personnel at the State Department of Health and local public health departments. Hobbs, also a Lake Stevens state senator, could not be reached for comment by publication deadline.  

At Wednesday’s press conference, KIRO’s Essex Porter asked the governor the obvious question. Inslee’s response: “Can we be successful if we lose the Guard? It would be so much more difficult. About 700 Guard members have been trained.” But, Inslee added, “I think there’s a good chance the policy will be revisited by the federal government because governors all across the country are going to be talking to the president about this. 

NOTE:  At Wednesday’s press conference, Inslee and Health Department Secretary John Wiesman also emphasized the importance of privacy and confidentiality of the information collected in contact tracing of the coronavirus. More on that in a future Emerald article.