National Guard increases statewide COVID-19 operations

    Major General Paul E Knapp
    Major General Paul Knapp, Wisconsin’s Adjutant General Paul Knapp who commands the Wisconsin National Guard and state Emergency Management.

    Wisconsin’s National Guard is stepping up its ongoing efforts to support state responses to COVID-19. Over 1,000 of Wisconsin’s nearly 10,000 guardsmen and women are now actively involved in a variety of operations meant to augment the state’s efforts. In a media briefing on April 22 Wisconsin’s adjutant general, Maj. Gen. Paul Knapp, also said an additional 225 troops have been mobilized to help increase COVID-19 testing.

    “We originally had three specimen collection teams capable of establishing mobile testing sites,” explained Knapp. “Those teams established a specimen collection site at a senior living facility in Sheboygan County on April 5. And another at the Milwaukee County House of Corrections (HOC) on April 18, where they began the process of testing nearly 950 staff and inmates.” Two more mobile testing sites have since been established, and the Guard will be  bringing eight additional teams online in the coming days, said Knapp.

    The Guard has maintained an operational presence throughout the pandemic. Its troops assisted in the transportation of dozens of Wisconsinites who had returned from quarantined cruise ships. Additionally, Knapp notes that in March a team of six medics were sent to a senior living facility in Grafton to augment the staff there for three days after a COVID-19 outbreak caused a temporary staffing shortage.

    A large portion of the Wisconsin National Guard  contingent is currently concentrated in Milwaukee and near Madison, but troops are also deployed in other areas. Over 2,300 COVID-19 cases have been confirmed in Milwaukee County at the time of this writing, with 138 deaths. Nearly 30 National Guard troops were sent to HOC to administer tests  after 27 positive cases were detected in the facility.

    National Guard Capt. Joseph Trovato told Wisconsin Examiner that currently, HOC is the only incarceration facility which has received a Guard team. “Our presence there will be short in duration,” said Trovato. “Once we’ve completed the requested specimen collections with staff and inmates, our troops will depart.”

    As more correctional facilities, both locally and those controlled by the state Department of Corrections (DOC), experience COVID-19 outbreaks among staff, however, more guard missions may become necessary. The Evers administration has also noted that it remains prepared to request that Guard troops serve as supplemental correctional officers if too many staff members at a particular facility fall ill.

    While Capt. Trovato stated the Guard “does not have any requests to assist with any law enforcement responsibilities,” including as correctional staff, that, too, could change. Maj. Gen. Knapp confirmed with Wisconsin Examiner that “we’ve had discussions about that,” with the state government. “It is actually a longstanding, decades-long mission of the Wisconsin National Guard to augment the Department of Corrections in case of a staffing crisis, which would be similar to something that would occur during a pandemic.” Knapp said that the Guard is monitoring DOC facilities very closely, and is regularly briefed by a DOC liaison through the state’s Emergency Operations Center (EOC).

    More than 2,400 Guard members also served as poll workers in 71 of Wisconsin’s 72 counties on election day. Thus far, although contact tracing has found new COVID cases which trace back to the polling sites, none of the  troops who  carried out that mission are among them.

    Soldiers and airmen are assisting in self-isolation sites in Milwaukee and Madison.

    “A team of approximately 12 medical and administrative personnel are assisting at each of those facilities,” said Trovato. “Additionally, Wisconsin National Guard is also helping staff a third voluntary self-isolation center run by Milwaukee County with 30 Guard medical and administrative personnel.” These, however, are entirely separate from the planned alternate care facility at State Fair Park, which the cities of Milwaukee and West Allis have communicated about with the US Army Corps. of Engineers over the past several weeks.

    “The alternate care facility is a wholly different facility,” explained the Captain. “At this time, six Wisconsin National Guard personnel are assisting with warehouse operations there, and another 50 are serving as temporary nursing assistants at the facility when it opens this week.” The State Fair Park facility is purposed to provide extra bed space in the event local hospitals reach capacity. Mayor Tom Barrett has stressed that while he hopes Milwaukee won’t need the facility, we’re all better off safe than sorry.

    Maj. Gen. Knapp also pointed out that the Guard represents “a fraction” of the personnel manning the alternate care facility. The National Guard is also assisting the Dane County Coroner’s Office with their mortuary affairs operations. “We have additional troops standing ready to assist the state in any way,” said Knapp, “and are currently trained and postured to provide medical surge capacity and assist with logistic support as needed.”

    According to the Department of Health Services (DHS), over 4,800 positive cases of COVID-19 have been detected statewide. Thus far, 246 people have died and the virus has resulted in over 1,300 hospitalizations, about 27% of the cases. Globally, the virus has resulted in over 2 million detected cases, and over 181,000 deaths. The United States of America remains at the top of the global charts with over 845,000 confirmed cases, and nearing 8,000 deaths. Unshaken, Knapp states, “we continue to work with our partners across the state, and at the local level, in support of Gov. Evers’ COVID-19 response.”

    Isiah Holmes is a journalist and videographer, and a lifelong resident of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Holmes' video work dates back to his high school days at Wauwatosa East High, when he made a documentary about the local police department. Since then, his writing has been featured in Urban Milwaukee, Isthmus, Milwaukee Stories, Milwaukee Neighborhood News Services, Pontiac Tribune, and other outlets.