WASHINGTON ― U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth is calling on the Trump administration to prepare the National Guard to fight the new coronavirus pandemic. Guard personnel can potentially relieve the burden on civilian hospitals by setting up drive-thru testing sites in communities across the country, she said.

As the administration has scrambled to broaden testing for the new coronavirus, known as COVID-19, Duckworth predicted the federal government will have to use Guard units that support chemical, biological, nuclear and radiological defense to screen hundreds of thousands of Americans at drive-thru testing centers. Military personnel can fill this role quickly because they already have expertise and personal protective equipment, according to the Democrat from Illinois.

“We should be looking at the capabilities in the military because they have all the equipment, we have all the resources. Let’s think about how to use them in a way that’s immediate and appropriate to stop the spread of this,” said Duckworth, who serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee.

An Army veteran, Duckworth worked on pandemic preparedness at the Pentagon’s Defense Support of Civil Authorities office.

Beyond hazardous materials experts, the Guard can dip into its inventory of prepacked Meals, Ready-to-Eat to feed children whose access to free school breakfast and lunch could be hampered by school closures. The Guard can also deploy water treatment experts to provide the public with potable water.

“I’m really worried about people on the low end of the income scale losing their pay, and hunger’s going to become an issue. The Chicago food depository has said it’s going to be slammed and run out of resources,” she said. “Let’s push out some of the MREs.”

After briefings on the federal government’s response last week, Duckworth wrote to Defense Secretary Mark Esper to express concern that the Defense Department had not yet taken steps to ensure the readiness of National Guard and Reserve units to support local civilian authorities, should the COVID-19 pandemic continue to spread.

Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., arrives for a vote at the Capitol on Jan. 24, 2018. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)
Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., arrives for a vote at the Capitol on Jan. 24, 2018. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

The letter and statements came as President Donald Trump declared the virus a national emergency last week, but he has yet to detail how any military resources might be deployed around the country to help with medical treatment and logistics.

More than 3,200 people have been diagnosed with the illness and more than 60 deaths blamed on it, all in just the last few weeks. Almost 6,500 people worldwide have died.

As of Monday, 15 states activated more than 650 Air and Army National Guard personnel to help respond to the ongoing coronavirus outbreak.

“Bottom line, our force must remain flexible, innovative and ready to help America mitigate the impacts of this virus,” Gen. Joseph Lengyel, the National Guard Bureau’s chief, said in a statement Monday. “I trust the Adjutants General in the 50 states, three territories and District of Columbia will continue to make decisions at their level to ensure our force of 450,000 people will be ready when their governors call.”

On Sunday, the two lead Democratic candidates for president debated a broad deployment by the White House. During a Democratic presidential debate Sunday, former Vice President Joe Biden said he would do so “now,” and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders said he would consider doing the same.

“They have the capacity to provide this surge help that hospitals need, and is needed across the nation,” Biden said. “They’ve done it. They have the capacity to build 500-bed hospitals that are completely safe and secure, and provide the help to get it done. It is a national emergency. I would call out the military.”

Sanders was less direct in his answer, saying he would “use all of the tools that make sense” and “if that means using the National Guard, that’s something that has to be done.”

The president can, under Title 10, “federalize” National Guard forces by ordering them to active duty in their reserve component status. Thus far, Guard activations have been at the direction of state governors.

Members of the New York National Guard hand out bags of food to residents near a 1-mile radius “containment area” set up to halt the coronavirus COVID-19 on March 12, 2020, in New Rochelle, N.Y. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Members of the New York National Guard hand out bags of food to residents near a 1-mile radius “containment area” set up to halt the coronavirus COVID-19 on March 12, 2020, in New Rochelle, N.Y. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Florida Gov. Rick DeSantis said last week he was among state governors working with the National Guard and private hospitals to set up drive-thru testing; health care workers in protective equipment like gloves and masks would approach the cars to conduct swab tests.

New York has deployed National Guard combat medics and airmen medical technicians to collect samples at its drive-thru centers. Gov. Andrew Cuomo also called on Trump to use the Army Corps of Engineers’ “expertise, equipment and people power to retrofit and equip existing facilities — like military bases or college dormitories — to serve as temporary medical centers.”

“We are going to organize the National Guard to work with the building unions and work with private developers to find existing facilities that could most easily be adapted to medical facilities," Cuomo said in a news conference Monday. “Meaning dormitories, meaning former nursing homes: facilities that have that basic configuration that could be retrofitted.”

Guard personnel could be used to “relieve first-line medical people who can get to the hospitals,” retired Army Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré, who led the military’s response to 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, told CNN. But calling up the military reserve, made up of civilians with careers outside the military, should be a, “last resort.”

“Our reserve forces, if we call them up, we’re going to pull doctors out of hospitals, and that’s a diminishing-return asset. And when we use it, we’ve got to make sure it’s a resort action,” Honoré said.

The National Guard has hazardous materials expertise within its 57 weapons of mass destruction-civil support teams, but they have yet to be activated for state active duty or federalized, according to a National Guard Bureau spokesman. Those teams are located in each state, U.S. territory, and Washington, D.C.

Units activated by state governors are funded by their state’s budget, but federalized Guard units would draw primarily from the Defense Department’s operations and maintenance as well as the military personnel accounts.

Congress would almost certainly backfill the accounts by passing supplemental appropriations, but the president could also use emergency authorities to quickly move money between related accounts, said Todd Harrison, director of defense budget analysis for the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“It’s eminently doable, if that’s the course they want to take,” Harrison said.

Dylan Gresik, Leo Shane and Meghann Myers of Military Times contributed to this report.