OKLAHOMA CITY — In an effort to support a whole-of-Oklahoma-government response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Oklahoma National Guard has activated its Joint Task Force at the Oklahoma National Guard Regional Training Institute in Oklahoma City.
The Joint Task Force, made up of members of both the Oklahoma Army and Air National Guard, is laying the groundwork for possible support missions Oklahoma Guardsmen may be called to perform, said Brig. Gen. Tommy Mancino, executive director of the Oklahoma Military Department and the Oklahoma National Guard assistant adjutant general (Army).
“Our Guardsmen are planning ahead for future operations we are anticipating the Governor may request of us through the lead agency — the Oklahoma State Department of Health,” Mancino said. “This planning will ensure when we execute those missions that they are done in the most efficient, timely and best way possible.”
Mancino, speaking from the JTF's operations center in Oklahoma City, said the Oklahoma National Guard Joint Task Force is just one part of a larger response by the State of Oklahoma.
“Currently, the governor is making this an all-state response effort. Literally every agency in Oklahoma is contributing to this response,” Mancino said. “The Oklahoma National Guard is in support of the lead agency, the Oklahoma State Department of Health.”
Gary Cox, the commissioner for the Oklahoma State Department of Health, said partnering with the Oklahoma National Guard is critical to getting through the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We appreciate the support of the Guard here in Oklahoma. It's critical to gather information, synthesize that information and get it to us and the governor so good decisions can be made,” Cox said. “It will be critical to get through the COVID-19 pandemic we are experiencing now. It's most likely going to be a long-term event, so we need all the resources and the help we can get so we are very appreciative of that.
Mancino said the Oklahoma National Guard stands ready to help anywhere the governor directs the citizen-soldiers and airmen. As an example of the many ways the Oklahoma National Guard can support partner agencies, Mancino said the Guard can provide soldiers to deliver critically needed medical supplies.
“One of the things I've told my Guardsmen is when you're at home to 'flatten the curve,' you see a dotted line [on the graph] and that dotted line represents the health care personnel here in Oklahoma, and I've told them our number one job is to support that line. We are going to do everything we can to help the real heroes: our health care workers.”
One of the many tasks that goes into assisting the all-state COVID-19 response is ensuring the Oklahoma National Guard has the ability to also respond to multiple potential natural disasters.
“The possibility of having multiple issues in the state at any one time is absolutely something the governor has addressed with the adjutant general. The adjutant general is ensuring [him] we are capable of doing more than one thing at once,” Mancino said. “I want to ensure the people of Oklahoma, that should there be a tornado or some other natural disaster, we are prepared to answer that and continue our support of the COVID-19 response.”
Another hurdle the Oklahoma National Guard has to clear as it supports relief efforts is dispelling disinformation and rumors.
Since the first reports of patients testing positive for COVID-19 in Oklahoma, rumors about statewide lockdowns and the National Guard enforcing martial law have been circulating on popular social media sites.
Mancino said, to many people, the National Guard is a comforting presence. However, some get concerned when they see people in uniform with military vehicles moving through their communities, something Mancino said is completely understandable.
“One of the things I really want to stress today, is that the Guard is here to help,” Mancino said. “Just like we've done many other times in the history of Oklahoma such as the Murrah Bombing and Moore tornadoes. Whenever Oklahomans need assistance, we are here for them and will continue to be here in the days ahead.”
One of the most circulated rumors focuses on a message stating the Department of Homeland Security is positioning the National Guard and preparing to declare martial law across the country.
Mancino said despite the governor having the constitutional power to declare martial law, there has been no discussion of it in Oklahoma.
“Let's have a candid discussion about martial law. Marital law is a thing; it exists within the constitutional powers granted to the Governor, but our Governor has made it very clear we are here to support the people and agencies of Oklahoma,” Mancino said. “There is absolutely no discussion of marshal law in Oklahoma. We are hoping everyone pulls together as a community and that we all work together to solve this vital problem we face with this COVID-19 virus.”
The rumors of martial law, lockdowns and closing Oklahoma's borders — all of which are untrue — are causing some people to become distressed.
Speaking as a member of the Oklahoma National Guard who has responded to multiple natural disasters in the past, Mancino said one of the most important things Oklahomans can do is remain calm and not give into panic.
“This is a very serious incident, but it is not an opportunity or place in time in history where we should allow ourselves to panic. This is a very well-known problem. We know what COVID-19 is. We know how it is transmitted. We know to whom it is dangerous and to whom it is not; and we have a plan in Oklahoma to address this aggressively.”