Washington, Jan 22 (efe-epa).- Hundreds of the nearly 26,000 National Guard members deployed to Washington to secure this week’s inauguration were briefly forced to take their rest breaks in a cramped parking garage, while around 100 troops have become infected with the coronavirus, according to media reports on Friday.
Three Guardsmen told the Politico news site that hundreds of the troops stationed in Washington after the deadly Jan. 6 storming of the Capitol by supporters of then-President Donald Trump have tested positive for Covid-19 or are under quarantine in nearby hotels.
The National Guard has not yet indicated the number of positive cases among its members, although fears are the virus has spread rapidly among the troops deployed to the US capital.
Following Wednesday’s inauguration of President Joe Biden, more than 10,000 Guardsmen remain on active security duty in Washington. But 15,000 other troops are expected to return home over the next 10 days, the National Guard said Thursday.
That military reserve force has struggled to implement a plan to test troops for the coronavirus, according to Politico, which said some have had to arrange for tests on their own.
The Washington Post, meanwhile, reported Friday that hundreds of National Guard members deployed to the Capitol were forced to rest between shifts on Thursday night on the floor of a parking garage located off the grounds of that legislative complex.
After photos of troops lying on concrete in one parking lot sparked harsh criticism from lawmakers, they once again have been allowed to take their breaks inside the Capitol complex.
Two troops told the Post that on Thursday afternoon they were transferred without explanation from the Capitol to a parking garage where they were exposed to exhaust fumes from passing cars and placed in close proximity to fellow Guardsmen who might be coronavirus carriers.
Prior to Thursday, the troops had been allowed to spend their down time inside the Capitol complex, and it remains unclear who instructed them to leave the grounds.
The DC National Guard said the US Capitol Police moved the troops away from that complex due to concerns about increased foot traffic in that area from lawmakers and other officials, but the acting head of that police force, Yogananda Pittman, said no such order was given.
The National Guard troops have been assigned hotel rooms, but they are typically on duty for one or two days on shifts of just a few hours at a time.
During their rest periods, it is not feasible for most to return to their hotels because many of those accommodations are located outside of the capital in the neighboring states of Virginia and Maryland.
Although there was some suggestion on social media that lawmakers requested the Guardsmen be moved off the grounds, the National Guard said those officials were not aware of the transfer.
“Our understanding is that the unfortunate request for the National Guard to be relocated was made without the knowledge of the congressional members,” said Wayne Hall, a spokesman for the National Guard Bureau. “This morning, all of the break areas used by the National Guard on duty at the Capitol are inside buildings” of that complex.
Photos of troops crammed into a parking garage prompted a strong rebuke from the new Senate majority leader.
Chuck Schumer, a Democrat from New York, said Friday that he had spoken with those responsible for security at the Capitol and told them that what had occurred was unacceptable.
“I have told those who run the security of the Capitol that it can never happen again, and I pledge to every National Guard member that it will not happen again,” he said Friday on the Senate floor.
The Senate Committee on Rules and Administration, meanwhile, is investigating the decision to relocate troops on their rest breaks but is primarily interested in determining whether adequate coronavirus precautions were taken, Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt, the ranking Republican on that committee, told Politico.
Following Biden’s inauguration, the challenge now is to return all of the Guardsmen back to their home states Some of the troops, including the members of the Wisconsin National Guard, were given the option to receive an initial Covid-19 vaccine dose before they were deployed to Washington.
Other troops began getting vaccinated last week, while still others will receive their first dose on Friday.