Guard continues COVID-19 test assistance; federal support in limbo

    Wisconsin National Guard members collect COVID-19 testing specimens in July. New calculations suggest Wisconsin may have up to 500 deaths more from COVID-19 than have been confirmed by diagnostic tests. (Wisconsin National Guard photo via Flickr)

    While the Wisconsin National Guard continues to aid with testing state residents for the virus responsible for COVID-19, officials in Wisconsin and other states are urging the federal government to extend funding for the testing deployment through the end of the year.

    National Guard members are collecting specimens this week at locations in 15 Wisconsin counties. The state Department of Health Services (DHS) website has a complete list of 92 active testing sites around the state, including those operated by the National Guard as well as others. The list shows which sites require an appointment and which are available for drive-through or walk-up service.

    Federal funding for the Guard’s role in assisting with testing and other state responses to the COVID-19 pandemic is scheduled to end next month.

    To date, Guard members have assisted with about one-third of the 873,322 tests that have been provided around the state. Since late spring, DHS officials have repeatedly said that it is their goal to increase test capacity in the state and to make sure everyone with COVID-19 symptoms and anyone with known exposure to the illness is able to get tested.

    Up to now, the Guard deployment to assist with COVID-19 efforts has been covered by federal funds. The federal support is scheduled to end in August, however, and while governors have urged the White House to extend it through the end of 2020, it’s not yet clear whether the Trump administration will agree.

    “It’s something that we’ve been pushing the Pentagon on …  and working with our federal partners to get a decision from the White House, and we’re hoping that we get an answer any day now,” Ryan Nilsestuen, chief legal counsel in the office of Gov. Tony Evers, said last week during a media briefing with the governor and DHS officials. “We are getting to a point, not just for Wisconsin but for a number of states, where we do have to be taking a very close look at Plan B [if] The White House fails to act.”

    Using the Guard in this manner “is something that Wisconsin cannot do just on its own, and we need strong federal support,” Nilsestuen said.

    Asked during the briefing what “Plan B” would be if President Donald Trump doesn’t extend federal support, Evers replied, “If he does that, I think that he will be sending the wrong signal to people.”

    He continued: “That said, we need the National Guard to continue to do their great work, and we’ll be strongly weighing our options to find financial resources to keep them working.”

    Erik Gunn
    Senior Reporter Erik Gunn reports and writes on work and the economy, along with related subjects, for the Wisconsin Examiner. He spent 24 years as a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine, Isthmus, The Progressive, BNA Inc., and other publications, winning awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, beat coverage, business writing, and commentary. An East Coast native, he previously covered labor for The Milwaukee Journal after reporting for newspapers in upstate New York and northern Illinois. He's a graduate of Beloit College (English Comp.) and the Columbia School of Journalism. Off hours he is the Examiner's resident Springsteen and Jackson Browne fanboy and model railroad nerd.