The Air Force Is Moving Thousands of COVID-19 Testing Items to the US

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U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Vernon Smith extracts ribonucleic acid from a nasopharyngeal swab sample.
U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Vernon Smith, 379th Expeditionary Medical Group biological augmentation team NCOIC, extracts ribonucleic acid from a nasopharyngeal swab sample for H1N1 screening, Oct. 13, 2009. (U.S. Air Force)

The U.S. has seen a shortage of testing kits as the novel coronavirus, or COVID-19, spreads.

But the Air Force recently began transporting items used for testing -- including swabs and liquids -- via cargo planes from Europe to the U.S., at the request of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), according to top Pentagon officials.

Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said that swabs used for testing were recently picked up in Italy and will be distributed to medical facilities across the U.S.

"They're used to test patients, and then they go to a lab that has the right equipment to analyze the swabs and see if there's coronavirus on the swab or not," added Air Force Brig. Gen. (Dr.) Paul Friedrichs, the Joint Staff surgeon. "We're working with international partners to meet our full demand going forward on this, and this is a good news story of how countries work together."

The swabs, known as nasopharyngeal swabs, are specialized for COVID-19 testing.

Friedrichs said Italy and the U.S. are looking to increase the supply of the swabs, which can only be made with synthetic fiber and plastic shafts in order to successfully test for the virus.

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"We've just made a pretty significant movement into Memphis, [Tennessee], last night or the day before," Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein said during an earlier briefing Tuesday.

DefenseOne first reported that the service quietly moved 500,000 parts for COVID-19 testing from Italy to Memphis on Monday using a C-17 Globemaster III cargo plane, call-sign "Reach 911." A photo of the shipment was posted on Instagram by service members involved with the mission.

A defense official separately confirmed to Military.com that the Air National Guard C-17, from the 164th Airlift Wing, flew in 13 pallets of supplies.

"There are future missions planned, again flying from Aviano Air Base to Memphis, for further distribution across the country by FedEx," the defense official said.

The shipments are a testament to the Air Force's "robust mobility portfolio," Goldfein said. "We're not limited because we can move a lot of test kits on a C-17 or a C-5. … I don't see any limitation in terms of our ability to move the test kits and the things that HHS is asking for."

"Global mobility ... has to continue," he added. That includes "Level 3 countries," which the Centers for Disease Control describes as those "with a widespread, ongoing transmission."

Goldfein said measures in place that isolate the aircrews "mitigate the risks so we can continue to fly into [these countries]," adding that Level 2 countries -- those practicing enhanced precautions -- likely "will migrate to Level 3."

As far as testing its own service members, Goldfein said the Air Force hasn't seen shortages. "We haven't had a significant demand signal yet for test kits," he said.

The Air Force has implemented measures such as social distancing, single-point entry for those coming into medical clinics, taking temperatures of crew still flying global missions, and minimizing as much movement as possible within aircraft, according to Goldfein and Lt. Gen. Dorothy A. Hogg, the surgeon general of the Air Force.

"But we are, like all the services and like the nation, looking at test kits overall in terms of what we may need to see in the future," Goldfein said.

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

Read more: More COVID-19 coverage

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