A lawmaker wants answers from the Pentagon about whether coronavirus tests are being sent to military bases worldwide after he said troops in Afghanistan based miles from a town where people have contracted COVID-19 are showing symptoms.
Several U.S. troops in Afghanistan are experiencing flu-like symptoms but have tested negative for influenza, according to Rep. Mark Pocan, a Wisconsin Democrat. Now, there are concerns the troops, who are 75 miles from Iran where the coronavirus is rampant, could have COVID-19, he said.
The troops have not yet been tested for the sometimes-deadly virus though, Pocan added. The congressman said he learned of the situation after one of the service members' families contacted his office.
"If we're not providing proper health care to military personnel, especially so close to where there is a real flare of the pandemic near Iran ... that would be awful," Pocan told Military.com.
The congressman declined to name the military base in Afghanistan where the troops are sick, citing concerns the service member's family had about coming forward. Herat province in Afghanistan has several positive cases of coronavirus, and the military has troops operating there.
The Defense Department did not respond to questions about the situation. Officials at U.S. Central Command referred questions to the public affairs office for NATO's Resolute Support mission in Afghanistan. That office also did not respond to questions.
As of Thursday, Pocan said he hasn't received clarity from the Defense Department on whether test kits are being provided to troops overseas. He said he finds the fact that he can't get a basic answer to that question for troops serving in far-flung locations "very concerning."
"If anyone is putting their life on the line for us overseas in the military, we really should be providing the health care that they deserve," Pocan told Military.com. "We fear they're not [getting] that."
Coronavirus cases topped 125,000 worldwide on Friday. The National Guard is expected to mobilize 1,000 troops across six states by the weekend as President Donald Trump declared the pandemic a national emergency.
Pocan pointed to widespread concerns over the way the U.S. is administering coronavirus tests. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told members of Congress this week that was "a failing."
"The system is not really geared to what we need right now," he said. "... That is a failing. It is a failing. Let's admit it."
Pocan pointed to aggressive testing in South Korea, which was able to slow the spread of new cases. Military members and their families don't need the added stress of not having access to coronavirus tests, he said, especially when they're deployed.
Army Gen. Robert "Abe" Abrams, commander of U.S. Forces Korea, told reporters Friday that troops in South Korea have had access to coronavirus tests.
So far, 145 people connected to that command have been tested, including troops, family members, and civilian and contractor workers. Nine people have tested positive for coronavirus.
Abrams touted the efficacy of testing in that country, which quickly sped up how it could test for the virus. More than 189,000 South Korean citizens have now been tested at more than 100 testing centers.
"The Republic of Korea, learning from previous pandemic experience, revamped their system," he said. "Three weeks ago, they could do about 5,000 tests a day. Today, they can do about 18K tests a day.
"We can get as many tested as necessary," Abrams added.
In a press conference Trump held Friday, government and health industry leaders pledged to make coronavirus testing more readily available.