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Head Of National Guard On the Bureau's Role In COVID-19 Vaccine Distribution

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The United States National Guard is around in case of emergencies, and in 2020 we have certainly had plenty of them - a pandemic, record wildfire and hurricane seasons, racial justice protests across the country and now, of course, the enormous task of distributing a COVID-19 vaccine. That means General Daniel Hokanson has had his hands full. He leads the National Guard, and he only took over in August. He joins us now to talk about the challenges of this past year and the work ahead.

General Hokanson, welcome.

DANIEL HOKANSON: Hey. Thank you, Ailsa - great to be with you today.

CHANG: It's great to have you. So there are currently 26 governors, I understand, who are planning to use the National Guard in some capacity to help them distribute the vaccine for COVID-19. Could you just give us an idea of what specifically will be asked of the National Guard when it comes to vaccine distribution?

HOKANSON: Absolutely. So when we look at the tasks that they'll be asked to do, it's primarily transportation, logistics. And in some cases - in actually 16 of the states, they're actually going to be part of administering the vaccine.

CHANG: OK, and what does that mean? Break that down for us.

HOKANSON: So when you look at the current vaccine with Pfizer, it has to be stored at extremely low temperatures. And so we've actually done rehearsals in the states that are currently out there supporting this. And so they've walked through this before to identify any significant changes or adaption of equipment that we have so that they can make sure that the vaccine stays within its constraints to the point of delivery. And so we'll be working very closely with the manufacturers and really the governor to meet their requirement to get the vaccines where they need to be. And then, as I mentioned before, in some of those cases, we'll actually have National Guardsmen, primarily our medical personnel, that will be helping administer those vaccines at the point.

CHANG: Well, in addition to COVID-19, of course, it has been an extremely intense year for the National Guard. You were called on to help with wildfires here in California during the worst wildfire season on record. You were called on to help with a really bad hurricane season as well. And these things are happening in part because of climate change. So let me ask you, how much is the National Guard preparing for natural disasters to get worse in the years ahead?

HOKANSON: Well, Ailsa, I think, you know, one thing is we've gotten really good at it. And if you go back to early June, we actually had 120,000 National Guardsmen on duty, and then also we had about 20,000 soldiers and airmen deployed downrange supporting combat operations. And to put that in perspective, you know, that's really about as large as we've had a mobilization since World War II.

CHANG: But if I may, do you expect those mobilizations to increase when it comes to natural disasters because of climate change?

HOKANSON: You know, it's hard to tell. For us, it's more of - and our role in this is trying to anticipate how bad it might be and doing everything we can to prepare for that...

CHANG: Right.

HOKANSON: ...To respond to our communities and particularly when our governors ask us to help out.

CHANG: Well, in addition to responding to natural disasters, of course, the National Guard was called upon to assist during the racial injustice protests this summer after the police killing of George Floyd. And I realize that you were not at the helm at that time, but looking back on the summer, what do you make of how the National Guard was used during those protests?

HOKANSON: You know, Ailsa, the one thing that we try and emphasize to everybody is the role of the National Guard is really to protect our citizens and not to police them. And so when we look at all the things that happened, you know, particularly starting in Minneapolis - and one of the intents there was to make sure that our citizens had the ability to peacefully protest. And we also need to protect our citizens and their property as well.

And if you go back to that - those first weeks in June, we had 43,000 National Guardsmen on the streets of America. And, you know, none of us ever want that. But the one thing that we were really able to do was help deescalate that. And you look at that - in a few weeks, we had, you know, below a hundred folks out there still doing it. And today when you look at where we are today, it's just over a hundred people. And we really see that as a good news story.

CHANG: Just looking back on the extraordinary challenges of this past year, 2020, do you feel that 2020 has in any way reshaped the National Guard's mission as we enter 2021 - if not formally reshaped, at least in your mind, informed you in a way that you look at the mission of the National Guard a little bit differently walking ahead?

HOKANSON: You know, that's a great question, Ailsa. So when you look at the National Guard, our motto forever has been, we're always ready and always there. And when you look at, you know, COVID-19, none of us saw this. We didn't know that we'd be involved in a pandemic, but we adapted and met every mission that our governors asked us to do, and then same with civil disturbance. And then you add, as you mentioned earlier, those historic fire and hurricane seasons. To me, it just shows what a - you know, a tremendous value the Guard is to our nation.

CHANG: General Daniel Hokanson, chief of the National Guard Bureau, thank you very much for your time today.

HOKANSON: Hey. Thank you, Ailsa, as well. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.