The total number of Georgia National Guardsmen who have tested positive for COVID-19 has more than doubled to 800 since last summer, when hundreds were dispatched to help fight the spread of the disease and boost security amid the protests for racial justice.
They represent nearly 6% of the 13,791 guardsmen who have tested positive nationwide. Five guardsmen from California, Hawaii, New Jersey, North Dakota and Texas are among the 15 U.S. servicemembers who have died from COVID-19.
On Wednesday, Gov. Brian Kemp extended an executive order authorizing him to deploy the Georgia Guard. At the same time, he condemned the violent mob of rioters — many armed and not wearing masks — who assaulted police, stormed the U.S. Capitol and vandalized it. About 1,100 D.C. National Guardsmen were mobilized in response to the chaos.
In an interview Thursday, Maj. Gen. Thomas Carden Jr., Georgia’s adjutant general, joined Kemp in rejecting the violence in Washington.
“I have been serving in uniform now for 34 and a half years and I took an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States of America,” Carden said. “And what we saw yesterday, as our governor so eloquently and aptly put it, was just flat-out un-American behavior.”
Carden said he was not aware of any related security threats in Georgia. Some guardsmen remain at the state Capitol in Atlanta, he added, though he declined to say how many because of security concerns. At the same time, more than 280 Guardsmen are helping hospitals and food banks and fighting the spread of COVID-19 in nursing homes and elsewhere.
Georgia has recorded about 600,000 cases of the disease, 43,600 hospitalizations and more than 10,000 deaths, according to the Georgia Department of Public Health.
Georgia’s troops have sought to shield themselves and their families from COVID-19 by wearing masks, gloves and Tyvek suits and staying at hotels while on duty.
“We live in your communities. We are no different than you,” Carden said of his troops. “And so we have and we will continue to follow the same set of rules and guidance that our public health professionals and our governor have repeated time and time again: Wear a mask, social distance. We need to wash our hands and we need to pay attention and be respectful of one another.”
Some Georgia Guardsmen will begin receiving COVID-19 vaccinations this week, Carden said. Officials declined to say precisely how many, though troops who are “involved in the medical field and those preparing to deploy will be among the first to receive” the shots, said Maj. Pamela Stauffer, a spokeswoman for the Georgia Guard.
“It is important to note that we don’t have ‘non-essential’ personnel in the Georgia National Guard. All are essential to our important missions we must address at home and around the globe,” Stauffer said in an email.
“While we have an estimate of those who will receive the vaccine, we remain ready to adjust based on the needs of the civilian population and based on any changes to the overall plan as circumstances evolve.”
Carden emphasized the illnesses among his troops will not affect the Guard’s readiness to respond to emergencies. By July, 323 Georgia Guardsmen had tested positive for COVID-19. That number grew to 800 last month. Of those, 726 have recovered from the disease. Those who have tested positive represent less than 6% of the state’s 14,000 Guardsmen.
“We have plenty of bandwidth,” Carden said.
As of Thursday morning, there were more than 20,400 National Guardsmen responding to the pandemic in all 50 states, three U.S. territories and Washington, D.C., said Wayne Hall, a spokesman for the National Guard Bureau. They are working at call centers, collecting samples from patients, and helping deliver food and supplies. Guardsmen are also administering vaccinations to civilians in Arizona, Florida, Mississippi, New Hampshire, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee.
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