House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is open to providing COVID testing resources to thousands of National Guard troops who remain in Washington to protect the Capitol after fears that their presence at the inauguration became a pandemic superspreader event. That willingness also comes in the wake of reports of coronavirus outbreaks among servicemen and -women who helped safeguard the presidential transfer of power.
Pelosi’s deputy chief of staff, Drew Hammill, said his boss is open to the idea of providing congressional testing resources to the troops still protecting the Capitol, but the military’s policy for the D.C. region is only to test individuals who are symptomatic.
“The speaker would support expanding our existing testing resources in conjunction with the Office of the Attending Physician, for National Guard members stationed here if DoD were to request the access,” Hammill told RealClearPolitics Tuesday. “Our understanding, though, is that their operating procedures right now only include testing for symptomatic individuals.”
Pelosi’s offer came after RCP and other media outlets reported that some state National Guard units are not providing COVID testing before or after their troops travel to D.C. -- and amid broader outrage over how the troops were treated during their inauguration deployment.
Every dignitary, lawmaker and congressional support staff who was in the Capitol complex for the inauguration was tested for COVID before they were allowed to attend on Jan. 20, according to a spokesperson for congressional organizers, but that policy did not extend to the 25,000 National Guard troops there to protect them. (RealClearPolitics reported on this vulnerability last week.)
Criticism erupted on Capitol Hill after a viral photo showing troops packed together and sleeping on the floor of a parking garage where they were relocated to rest amid shifts.
Pelosi’s testing offer follows harsh criticism from House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy.
With Donald Trump’s impeachment trial looming, some 7,000 guardsmen remain in Washington, but it’s unclear whether any state guard units have stepped up their COVID testing.
A McCarthy spokesman said at least part of the blame for the lack of testing and preparation for the troops’ safety rests with Pelosi, arguing that she did not respond to his calls for a comprehensive testing program for the Capitol last year. The spokesman said McCarthy urged Pelosi to develop a comprehensive plan to safely reopen Congress, including the need for a “formalized COVID testing program” eight months ago.
“Despite repeated calls to help make the Capitol complex safe throughout the pandemic, there was never a detailed strategy to minimize the COVID spread within the halls of Congress,” the spokesman told RCP. “We continue to see the lack of planning play out today: 14,000 troops were brought to the Capitol to provide additional security, but there was little consideration for their health or logistical needs.”
“The speaker needs to answer how she is going to help protect the health of our National Guard,” the spokesman continued. “They are here to protect us and should not have to unnecessarily risk their well-being.”
Decisions regarding testing at the Capitol complex, however, are not Pelosi’s alone to make and shifted in response to D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s COVID travel order asking all travelers to obtain a COVID test and a result before arriving in D.C. The Capitol attending physician decided in November to provide COVID tests to members of Congress or staffers after arriving in the nation’s capital if they couldn’t do so before arriving in D.C.
Before that time, the attending physician had concerns about the efficacy of widespread testing for asymptomatic people. Pelosi and Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader last year, had jointly decided not to offer all members and staffers COVID tests out of concern that it would diminish testing capacity for essential workers and the general public because test were initially far less widely available.
“Recent weeks have demonstrated that Kevin McCarthy has no fidelity to the truth or fact,” Hammill shot back. “The minority leader, as usual, has no idea what he’s talking about but is desperate to make political points that he can’t substantiate with the facts.”
The enmity between the two Californians -- who lead their respective caucuses in the House -- hit a new low last week after news broke that freshman GOP Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia had allegedly “liked” a comment on her Facebook page in 2019 that threatened the life of Pelosi and other Democrats. The speaker responded by telling reporters that the “enemy is within the House of Representatives.” McCarthy is under pressure from Dems to strip Greene’s committee assignments after several Senate Republicans this week repudiated her views.
Yet other Republicans argue that Pelosi is playing the worst type of partisan politics, using the Capitol insurrection to exploit the rift within the GOP over Trump while giving little consideration for the well-being of the troops she wanted in the Capitol for protection.
A source familiar with security decisions in the wake of the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol said Pelosi met with acting Army Secretary John Whitley to “demand” that 14,000 National Guard troops be deployed to the Capitol but “there was no logistical plan on where the service members would sleep.”
Pelosi’s office counters that what the speaker really did was simply tell Whitley she supported the U.S. Capitol Police request for 14,000 troops, a plan developed with the input of the National Guard itself, and she merely wanted to know if the Guard could meet that request.
After reports of COVID outbreaks among troops protecting the inauguration surfaced, Dr. Deborah Birx, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention adviser and the former coordinator of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, suggested the inauguration “could be” a superspreader event, expressing the greatest concern over the National Guard troops’ lack of testing considering their cramped working and living conditions.
“Right now, in the District of Columbia, there are National Guard troops here from every state in the union, probably, young individuals who are most likely to have asymptomatic infection if they do get infected,” Birx told CBS News’ “Face the Nation” on Jan. 23. A former U.S. Army colonel, Birx said the troops were "going to do their mission" even if it presented a health risk.
On Friday RealClearPolitics asked White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki whether Biden shared the concern raised about the troop’s treatment while in D.C.
“I’ve spoken to the president about this directly, and the incredible sacrifices they make is something that is personal to him,” Psaki replied, referring to the military service of Biden’s late son, Beau, who served in the Delaware National Guard as a Judge Advocate General, including a year-long deployment to Iraq.
Psaki said Biden called the head of the National Guard the previous week when reports surfaced about troops being forced to sleep in a garage. “Of course, [he] conveyed his dismay [about] the photos he had seen and their treatment, and also offered personally any help that he could provide, even if it was boosting morale,” she added. “Certainly that line of communication remains open should there be something that he can do from his end.”
Psaki then referred questions about testing and vaccinating the troops to the Department of Defense.
The DoD referred COVID testing questions to the National Guard.
National Guard spokeswoman Nahaku McFadden said the federal bureau is following COVID guidance from the CDC, which recommends screening and temperature taking, not testing, for troops deployed to D.C. when they arrive. But the National Guard bureau can only provide recommendations as the official channel of communication between the Department of Defense and the states’ Guard units. Unless federalized, guardsmen are under the command and control of their governors.
“While in D.C. they are operationally under the command of the D.C. National Guard Adjutants General, but the respective governor retains authority,” she said.
Because states retain ultimate authority, each is left to its own COVID procedures, resulting in a patchwork of policies. By the time the troops arrive in D.C. for screening, they have already traveled in close proximity on planes and buses, usually on military planes and vehicles, although some have also taken civilian flights to D.C.
Guard representatives of several states told RealClearPolitics they are providing at least some COVID testing to troops. Spokespersons for the National Guard forces in Oklahoma, California and Illinois told RCP they tested troops before the left for D.C., and anyone who tested positive was sidelined from the deployment.
A spokesman for the Illinois National Guard said its adjutant general, the top officer in charge of state Guard forces, is immediately informed of any positive test results. The Oklahoma Guard also tested its troops when they returned, but California did not. Other states, including Hawaii, tested their troops when they returned home, Hawaii’s spokesperson said. In addition to being given COVID tests before deployment, California spokesman Jonathan Shiroma said, all personnel from that state were offered their first COVID vaccination before their departure to D.C.
Karina Shagren, a spokeswoman for the Washington state National Guard, which has experienced a COVID outbreak among its ranks since the inauguration, said there is no DoD requirement to provide COVID tests before a deployment. “Our men and women traveled largely on a military aircraft – and followed the direction provided by the agencies they supported in D.C.,” she said.
Shagren also stressed how rapidly the troops were called up for the inauguration mission and said Washington state is not participating in the extended D.C. deployment that will continue until the end of March.
“Within a week, we were asked to mobilize more than 1,000 guardsmen to support law enforcement partners at the state’s and nation’s capital,” she said. “Please understand and appreciate the speed at which we were moving.”
In the two weeks following the inauguration, there has been a growing number of reported COVID cases among troops. National Guard officials late last week estimated a positivity rate among troops protecting the Capitol since the Jan. 6 attack of about 1% to 3% of the roughly 25,000 troops deployed to D.C. Those numbers amount to roughly 250 to 750 service members who have come down with the virus, although the National Guard has declined to say exactly how many cases it has had across all the forces activated to protect the nation’s capital over the last month, and more outbreaks have been reported this week among troops returning to their respective states.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer expressed his displeasure over the incident last month in which Guard troops were shown sleeping in a garage with few bathroom facilities and vowed to get to the bottom of the decision-making that led to that situation. He and other Senate leaders quickly ordered Capitol Police to let the troops back into the Capitol building and congressional offices. But Senate leaders have remained mum in response to RealClearPolitics’ questions asking why the COVID testing requirements for lawmakers and staff on Inauguration Day did not extend to the service members protecting them.