Governor Charlie Baker called up the Massachusetts National Guard on Thursday, activating up to 2,000 members of the force to help in the response to the worsening coronavirus pandemic, as confirmed cases in the state topped 300.
Members of the guard will be tasked with supporting requests from state agencies for “equipment, logistics, warehousing, and related duties,” according to the Baker administration. Authorities said the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency will coordinate requests for help from communities and individual state agencies.
The number of confirmed cases jumped to 328 Thursday, up from 256 the day before, with more than 3,100 tests having been conducted by state and commercial labs, officials said.
The jump of 72 new documented cases is the largest increase since the virus began its spread in Massachusetts, and reflects the steady rise of patients coming to hospitals around the state with the virus or with symptoms. Baker promised Thursday that the number of tests will increase significantly, and officials say the number of confirmed cases will inevitably rise as more tests are conducted. Some experts believe that as many as 6,500 people in the state could be infected.
In a taped address Thursday evening, Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh spoke to the gravity of the crisis.
“Everything we can do to slow the spread of the virus will prevent our hospitals from getting overwhelmed, and the more seriously we take this situation right now, the sooner life in our city will be back to normal,” he said.
Baker’s move mirrors a nationwide trend in recent days, as government officials scramble to fight the pandemic with all the resources at their disposal. More than 2,000 National Guard soldiers and airmen in at least 27 other states have been activated to support response efforts for COVID-19, the disease caused by coronavirus.
The head of the US National Guard told reporters on Thursday that that number could double by the weekend and didn’t rule out tens of thousands of guardsmen being activated before the end of the pandemic. “Activating the National Guard will help support our Administration’s efforts to keep residents safe and secure during the COVID-19 outbreak,” said Baker in a statement. “The expertise of the Massachusetts National Guard will benefit our communities with logistical support and other assistance as we continue to respond to this crisis.”
It was not clear Thursday if the Guard members who are being activated would be armed or unarmed while they carried out their duties, according to Don Veitch, a spokesman for the Massachusetts National Guard.
The Guard, which is the oldest state National Guard in the country, dating back to 1636, has about 8,000 members.
State law allows the governor to call upon the National Guard “in the case of public catastrophe or natural disaster,” among other scenarios. Baker’s office said Thursday’s order reflects the governor’s statutory authority to activate the Guard “to provide necessary assistance to state and municipal civilian authorities.” State law also allows for the National Guard to exercise the powers of police officers.
State Senator Eric Lesser, a Longmeadow Democrat, said Thursday it would be prudent to activate the Guard for specific tasks, like assistance at COVID-19 testing sites or help with distributing medical supplies. He said the governor’s call was “absolutely the correct decision,” and added that he has “full confidence in the men and women of the National Guard to do what’s needed in this emergency.”
“It would be better to have and not need them, than need them and not have them,” he said.
Grover Baxley, an attorney for a Cape Cod firm that specializes in military defense cases, said the National Guard can be activated and used in multiple ways involving both state and federal authorities. For state active duty, a governor can activate Guard troops to respond to a “need for governmental services that exceeds local and state civilian capabilities,” he said.
“Typical uses of National Guard personnel in a pandemic response would include base security and limited medical missions,” said Baxley.
Baker has used the Guard before during emergencies. Last summer, he activated up to 500 guardsmen to help recovery efforts in four Cape Cod communities that had been ravaged by a trio of tornadoes and severe weather. The storm damaged property, felled trees and utility poles, and left thousands of residents without power.
In 2015, with a mammoth storm bearing down on the region, Baker called up 500 members of the Guard. Some parts of Massachusetts were buried under 3 feet of snow. There were thousands of power outages and wind gusts on Cape Cod topped 70 miles per hour.
During that response, guardsmen positioned trucks in 40 locations to transport first responders, evacuate civilians, and help conduct wellness-checks.
After gas explosions and fires rocked Merrimack Valley in 2018, Guard members delivered thousands of hot plates to residents who were left without gas service.
The Guard also provides support for annual celebrations like the Fourth of July and First Night in Boston, as well as the Boston Marathon.
Ed Davis, a former Boston police commissioner, said the National Guard was used in the aftermath of the 2013 Marathon bombings. He said that within five hours of the bombings, the Guard was able to move about 1,400 of its members into the city.
“Logistically, it’s an amazing capability to move people,” said Davis, who now works as a security consultant and counts the Globe among his clients.
The guardsmen were initially tasked in a support role for local police and were charged with securing the crime scene, according to Davis. As the week wore on, the Guard helped in other ways, providing other law enforcement authorities with specialized equipment like armored cars and helicopters and assisted with logistics while investigators pursued Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in Watertown, said Davis.
Davis thought the Guard should only be activated if there is a specific need, like if local police are overwhelmed with calls or disturbances or if hospitals and clinics need security.
“It’s important to explain the purpose of why they’re being activated,” he said.
The state force has helped mitigate public health emergencies in the past. In 1792, the Massachusetts National Guard helped inoculate people against smallpox, according to a military historian. In 1955, during the wake of Hurricane Diane, guardsmen from another New England state, Connecticut, worked with health officials to administer thousands of typhus immunizations to flood victims, according to the US military.
California Governor Gavin Newsom, meanwhile, has directed that state’s National Guard to “to be prepared to perform humanitarian missions across the state including food distribution, ensuring resiliency of supply lines, as well as supporting public safety as required.”
In Colorado, about 50 National Guard members were mobilized to support a state emergency center and help public health authorities at drive-up COVID-19 testing centers.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said earlier this week that his state will organize the National Guard as part of a plan to find existing buildings like dormitories and former nursing homes that can be converted to medical facilities. The goal is to create an additional 9,000 beds.