The Defense Department expects to get novel coronavirus tests out to deployed environments in the coming weeks and months as it begins to ramp up production efforts that are essential for test kits, according to a top medical officer.
Air Force Brig. Gen. (Dr.) Paul Friedrichs, the Joint Staff surgeon, said Wednesday that, as soon as the Food and Drug Administration approves emergency use authorities for test elements, such as coronavirus-specific cartridges and canisters, officials will be able to get troops in deployed environments tested faster.
"We're hearing that potentially we can begin seeing these tests for these specific machines coming out in weeks to months," Friedrichs said during a press briefing at the Pentagon. "I think industry is doing an excellent job of stepping forward with solutions and, as they're coming out, we're purchasing them and providing them to our units."
Friedrichs acknowledged that testing efforts across Defense Department facilities have not been without problems.
"Have I heard the anecdotes of, 'Well, I went to Fort So and So, and something happened, and I didn't get my test results for two days'? That breaks my heart when I hear that because that's not the norm that we're aspiring to," he said.
"I'm not going to pretend that there are not episodes now where someone is not able to get [tested] as quickly as they would like, but I think we have very aggressively moved forward in opening up our labs and our testing capability," Friedrichs said. "If someone is aware within the DoD population where that's not happening, please let us know, because we do have the capacity to perform the testing on our population."
The Pentagon has 16 laboratories certified to process thousands of test kits per day. Last week, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said he had authorized the labs to begin processing tests for non-DoD personnel and civilians. On Wednesday, Friedrichs said that the capacity to test the general population in these labs is available pending a request for assistance from the Department of Health and Human Services.
"We have not received a [request for assistance] from HHS that I'm aware of," he said. "[But] we continue to partner with the [Centers for Disease Control], HHS and [Federal Emergency Management Agency] to support the whole-of-government effort as we're going forward."
As of Wednesday, 227 service members had tested positive for the coronavirus, also known as COVID-19, an increase of 53 from the day prior; twelve remain hospitalized, according to the Pentagon.
While the military has already canceled or scaled back multiple exercises, troops overseas as well as those on board deployed Navy vessels have seen an increase in cases. Stars and Stripes reported Wednesday that 72 members of the military community within U.S. European Command are infected with the virus; the Navy on Tuesday announced its first positive novel coronavirus cases on a deployed aircraft carrier.
Operation Resolute Support officials on Tuesday said there were four confirmed cases of coronavirus among coalition troops in Afghanistan, the first for the estimated 12,000 U.S. and 16,000 troops from coalition nations in Afghanistan. Another 38 personnel who have flu-like symptoms have also been placed in isolation and are receiving medical care.
But the coalition lacks labs in Afghanistan to analyze tests. As a result, tests must be flown to Landstuhl, Germany, for analysis. Earlier this month, one lawmaker requested answers from the Pentagon about whether coronavirus tests were being sent to austere military base locations.
"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," Rep. Mark Pocan, a Wisconsin Democrat, told Military.com on March 13. Pocan raised concerns that troops had not yet been tested for COVID-19 after one of the service members' families contacted his office.
Friedrichs said the Pentagon will not have a full grasp on the situation for at least a few weeks.
"Everybody keeps asking what's going to happen in two weeks, what's going to happen in three weeks -- we don't know." he said. The Pentagon is balancing risk assessments in real time, much like the rest of the country, he added.
Based on the influx of data from the CDC and other agencies, the department is unable to create a forecast model of how the virus will spread over the next three weeks and how it can affect troops within the ranks.
"We think we're going to continue to see this, to no surprise, continue to grow," Friedrichs said, adding there's "no value" in speculating on particular end dates.
"If we stop doing the right thing today because we think something is going to happen in four weeks, we will make things worse," he said. "It is a worrisome narrative ... when we try to say there's some reason that we should question the guidance that's being given out.
"I think in a few weeks, we'll have better fidelity on that data," he said.
-- Richard Sisk and Gina Harkins contributed to this report.