Illinois National Guard winds down service at state's COVID-19 testing sites

The deployment of Illinois National Guard members to support the state's COVID-19 testing mission is drawing to a close.

It's been a extraordinary four-month effort to establish critical testing sites, keeping service members away from their families for weeks at a time. In March, members of the Illinois National Guard began establishing and operating critical state-run testing sites.

"In Afghanistan, it's a helmet and armor. For COVID, it was the masks and gloves, all those kind of things," said Illinois National Guard Brig. Gen. Richard Neely.

State leaders recently announced that the Illinois National Guard will hand over operations of 11 state-run testing sites to civilian contractors this month.

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Over the past four months, thousands of service members have averaged 45-day deployments, followed by a 14-day quarantine, all away from their families to prevent the virus' spread.
"They were very, very disciplined about going to work in the morning, coming back they had to quarantine in their hotel rooms overnight. They had contract meals that were provided," Neely said.

Officials said 33 Illinois National Guard members tested positive for COVID-19, or 1% of those deployed. Two of them were hospitalized, but there were no fatalities.

In addition to running those testing sites, the Guard was involved in logistics, including deliveries to McCormick Place. Service members were supporting the state's COVID-19 efforts while managing other crises, including downstate flooding in May as well as civil unrest last month.

"I couldn't be prouder of our men and women and their response,'" Neely said.

A small number of members will remain on duty to help with the transition to that civilian workforce. But if there's a resurgence of the virus, the Illinois National Guard says it's ready to deploy again.

The handover to civilians comes as testing in Illinois reached a new daily high, of more than 36,000.

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It also comes a day after Gov. Pritzker called for a national mask mandate.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said such a rule would be hard to enforce.

"Unless we're willing to arrest everyone who's out there, which of course we're not. We're in a democracy. All of this depends upon individual choices and responsibility," Lightfoot said.

The mayor's message about the importance of face coverings aimed at young people specifically, with infections rising among 18-to-29-year-olds.
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