The Hawaii National Guard is drawing down its COVID-19 response teams as the state continues its vaccine rollout and moves toward reopening.
Guard members were deployed early in the pandemic to be front-line responders with a wide variety of roles including assisting state agencies, screening arrivals at airports, conducting coronavirus tests and doing educational outreach at schools, businesses and low-income neighborhoods.
But the need for such assistance has diminished as the pandemic ebbs, especially after the state lifted all testing and quarantine requirements for interisland travel on June 15. Restrictions remain for people arriving in the state with the exception of those who received vaccinations in Hawaii.
Gov. David Ige said that he has asked Hawaii National Guard commander Maj. Gen. Kenneth Hara to prepare plans for gradually decreasing a joint task force of roughly 700 soldiers and airmen stationed across the islands. “We are definitely downsizing,” Ige said Tuesday in an interview with the Civil Beat Editorial Board.
After the World Health Organization officially declared the coronavirus a pandemic in March 2020, Ige appointed Hara to oversee the state’s response to the public health crisis. The next month more than 300 National Guard members were activated to assist with the crisis. At its peak, the joint task force had more than 800 troops.
The Guard played a key role in a mass drive-thru COVID-19 testing effort on the H-3 highway last September, and when vaccines began arriving in the islands in December, Guard members helped administer them to Hawaii residents.
The governor said that Hawaii’s Safe Travels program required the state to call up large numbers of troops to implement and enforce the COVID-19 restrictions. Among the most visible posts that Guard members have had has been as airport screeners checking temperatures and test results of arrivals.
“We are ending some of our temperature screenings at various airports based on the change in the interisland Safe Travels requirements,” said Brig. Gen. Moses Kaoiwi, head of the Hawaii National Guard’s Army component as well as the joint task force.
“The Hawaii National Guard continues to execute multiple missions in support of the Counties, the State Department of Health, and the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency,” he said in an email. “We are still assisting the Counties and State in vaccinations and other areas that assist in mitigating COVID-19.”
Kauai Mayor Derek Kawakami attended a send-off for Guard members from the Port Allen Airport on Sunday, The Garden Island reported. “Kauai maintained one of the lowest rates of COVID-19 in the United States thanks in large part to the dedicated work and sacrifices of our Hawaii National Guard troops,” Kawakami said.
On Tuesday, the Pentagon ended its mobilization of active duty troops supporting Federal Emergency Management Agency’s COVID-19 mass vaccination sites, but National Guardsmen around the country remain on duty.
Approximately 12,410 Guard troops remain on duty across 45 states and U.S. territories, Wayne Hall, a spokesperson for the National Guard Bureau, said Wednesday.
Ige said he and his team have kept tabs on how many Guard members have been deployed in other states.
The widespread Guard deployment in response to the pandemic has been funded with federal dollars. In January President Joe Biden authorized continued funding to all National Guard units activated for COVID-19 response throughout the rest of the fiscal year, which ends in September.
“We did use the Guard quite a lot, and we are preparing to assume that come the end of the fiscal year, federal support for the National Guard would go away,” said Ige.
The governor said he has asked Hara for three downsizing options including the possibility of reducing the task force to roughly 350 members, fewer than 100 in the near-term before likely demobilizing the rest of the task force by September.
The National Guard has also continued to perform other missions such as responding to natural disasters and deploying to conflict zones around the world.
Hawaii Guard members were among those deployed to Washington, D.C., to provide security for President Biden’s inauguration after the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol by a mob of supporters of former President Donald Trump. Many of those soldiers had been in Afghanistan less than a year earlier.
After the inauguration several of the guardsmen tested positive for COVID-19 upon returning to Hawaii.
The military stayed largely quiet on infection rates among personnel in Hawaii, but at least one Hawaii guardsman, a 53-year-old assigned to Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, died of COVID-19 in November.
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