OLYMPIA — Gov. Jay Inslee has asked the federal government to continue paying for the use of National Guard soldiers through the end of the year to respond to the coronavirus pandemic.
Inslee’s request Monday comes as cases of coronavirus have begun to climb across Washington and hospitalizations involving the virus have also started creeping back up.
The governor’s request, made in a letter to the U.S. Department of Defense, seeks an extension through Dec. 31 of federal funding currently paying for the more than 1,000 guard members assisting with various parts of the COVID-19 outbreak response.
“They are critical to our efforts to slow the spread of the virus by supporting COVID-mapping missions, assembling test kits, and operating community-based test sites,” Inslee wrote in the letter.
“Additionally, uniquely skilled National Guard planners are assisting my COVID-19 food security team and other state agencies to ensure that we meet the health and welfare needs of Washingtonians through our phased re-opening plan,” Inslee added.
The current federal funding is set to expire Aug. 21, according to Inslee spokeswoman Tara Lee.
Even without federal reauthorization, the state could still deploy Guard members at the request of local governments, Lee wrote in an email.
“However, they’d need to be on State Active Duty and the cost burden would shift to the state and local level,” she wrote.
Guard members have been a part of Washington’s pandemic response since early April.
At that time, 130 members deployed to help staff food banks in King, Pierce, Chelan, Franklin and Walla Walla counties. In Issaquah, for example, Guard members unloaded deliveries, repackaged food and then staged 44-pound boxes so food supplies were ready for distribution.
The state has also trained more than 720 National Guard members to help with contact tracing, also known as COVID mapping. Those members call people who have tested positive for the virus, to learn who they have been in close contact with.
Then, in an effort to halt the spread of the virus, contact tracers call those people and encourage them to get tested and to quarantine for two weeks.
In her email, Lee wrote that some food banks are now able to have volunteers return, which could cut down on the need for Guard members in that role.
But, “we anticipate more will be needed to conduct the covid mapping mission,” Lee wrote, and, “Test kit assembly and the operation of community based test sites will be an ongoing need.”
Also on Monday, Inslee participated in a call between governors and members of President Donald Trump’s coronavirus response efforts, including Vice President Mike Pence. The call came after Trump on Saturday appeared in public for the first time wearing a mask.
On the call, Inslee told Pence that he appreciated that the president wore a mask, according to an account of the call provided by Inslee’s office.
Pence responded by saying that the administration would keep using masks whenever possible, according to the account, and that he would be wearing a mask when he disembarked on Tuesday from Air Force Two during a schedule stop in Louisiana.