Colorado National Guard commander Maj. Gen. Mike Loh says the people of Colorado have done more to defeat the coronavirus than his troops ever could.

They stayed home, washed their hands, and kept the Guard forces home, too.

"If this thing can't find a host then it dies," Loh said. "That's what we need."

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Since residents have kept the number of infections down, Loh hasn't had to open doomsday plans to mobilize large numbers of the state's Guard troops. So far, just 200 have been called up to assist state and local authorities.

Before coronavirus hit Colorado, the Guard was busy.

"I have over 300 members deployed overseas," Loh said of troops on duty from the Middle East to Europe.

Colorado Guard troops also have full-time military jobs here. The Colorado Springs-based 100th Missile Defense Brigade is a National Guard unit that controls interceptors in California and Alaska to shoot down enemy intercontinental ballistc missiles at the edge of space.

The Guard here also has some of the nation's first space troops, with units in Greeley and Colorado Springs dedicated to missions in orbit.

That's a lot of work for the 5,500-member state militia that Loh oversees.

He's working to keep his troops healthy through the coronavirus outbreak and ready to respond if help is needed.

"Everyone thinks this is phase one of this fight," Loh said, noting that coronavirus, which has sickened more more 6,000 across Colorado could ebb before a new outbreak begins.

"It at least appears there are certain hot spots and those can shift over time," he said.

Loh's Guard troops began their battle against the virus on March 10 when Gov. Jared Polis declared an emergency and activated the state's command center for disaster response.

Loh called in Guardsmen to run the command center, and they were on the job fast.

"We showed up there within two hours," he said.

The Guard has a behind-the-scenes role in disasters. Civilian agencies are leading the effort, with Guard troops rendering assistance when they are needed.

The Guard has delivered supplies to mountain towns where the first outbreaks hit. They have set up drive-up testing for Denver and helped swab samples from people exposed to the disease.

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Along the way, Loh has been careful about which Guard members get the call. Many Guard troops serve in critical civilian roles as cops, firefighters and medical providers.

"I will not take a nurse from the civilian community to take a nurse into the military," Loh said.

The Guard is one of the first resources Polis can lean on in an emergency. The Guard is used to providing help, with troops responding to fires, floods and a bomb cyclone blizzard in recent years. 

Loh, though, said the virus threat is like nothing he's ever seen. Every American is at risk, and could be for months.

Loh is looking at ways in the weeks to come that improved testing and better plans can target small outbreaks before they sweep across the state.

"This a surgical strike vs. rolling the grenade out," he said.

Part of that planning is examining how to harness the state's resources like protective gear and medical equipment so it is sent where it needs to be when its needed.

"How can we get just in time servicing so they are not running out?" he asked.

Atop that planning process is Polis, whom Loh said has a powerful calculator in his mind.

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"He takes in so much data," Loh said.

And the governor is fast on his feet, Loh said, quickly deciding how to attack the disease.

"The governor is thinking well ahead of what the needs are and how we get there," Loh said.

Now, the Guard is working with the Army Corps of Engineers to build care facilities to house coronavirus patients as they recover.

They've picked sites in Denver and Fort Collins that will house patients who are ill, but don't require intensive care, freeing up beds for the sickest patients.

The Guard is also helping Denver and other municipalities give shelter to those who don't have a home after the governor ordered residents to stay at home.

"We're now taking care of homeless shelters throughout the state and in the city and county of Denver," Loh said.

Meanwhile, Guard units are limiting the size of their drills and telling members to stay healthy.

Even when broken into smaller teams, the Guard has strong leadership, the general said, thanks to a core cadre of Guard troops who have served on active duty.

"The nice thing about the Guard is they tend to be older, they tend to be instructors," Loh said.

By keeping units broken down to small elements, Loh said he has built-in redundancy. If one group shows signs of the virus, another will be ready to fill their boots.

But the general hopes those troops aren't needed.

By following the state's guidance and staying home, Colorado residents are winning battles with the virus.

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Those who ignore the state's recommendations are working for the enemy, he said.

"If people ignore this order, then they are risking the lives of everybody," he said.

Contact Tom Roeder: 636-0240

Twitter: @xroederx

Senior Military Editor

Tom Roeder is the Gazette's senior military editor. In Colorado Springs since 2003, Tom covers seven military installations in Colorado, including five in the Pikes Peak region. His main job, though, is being dad to two great kids.

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