U.S. Army leaders announced Thursday that they are confident the service will reopen training to new recruits next week, despite the recent discovery of about 50 cases of coronavirus at one of its Basic Combat Training centers.
On April 6, Army training officials announced a two-week pause to shipping recruits to BCT as the service struggles to control the spread of COVID-19 throughout the force.
Since the pause began, the Army has begun fielding new health testing equipment so the training centers can test several hundred trainees a day.
So far, about 50 trainees in a single Basic Combat Training battalion at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, have been diagnosed with COVID-19, Army leaders told reporters at the Pentagon on Thursday. In total, the Army has 992 cases of the virus across the active-duty force, National Guard and Reserve.
Despite the cluster of cases at Jackson, Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville said he remains confident in the protocols the service has put in place to create a "safety bubble where there is minimum exposure to other soldiers."
"I want to assure the parents and families of soldiers that, even in this time of uncertainty, one thing remains true: We have a sacred obligation to take care of your sons and daughters to ensure they are ready to support and defend this nation, and we have the right measures in place to do that," he added.
McConville said he visited Jackson on Wednesday to see the new measures that have been put into place.
Jackson has four new testing systems -- two BioFire systems and two GeneXpert 16 systems -- which allow training officials to get up to 768 complete test results per day, he said.
Each GeneXpert 16 completes 360 test kits per day, "720 for two of them at Jackson," Lt. Gen. Scott Dingle, the Army's surgeon general, told reporters. Each BioFire system completes 24 test kits in 24 hours.
"This is on the spot; they are not being sent out," Dingle said. "We get it right there."
The Army has expanded this testing capability at 36 installations and has the ability to "cross-level and send it to other locations and medical centers as required," said Dingle, who could not give the Army's total test capability requirements because the number is still being worked out at the Pentagon, as well as at Forces Command and Training and Doctrine Command.
"Ideally, we would like to test everyone," McConville said. "The more you can test, the more you are going to feel comfortable with what the status of the force is."
For now, the Army will continue to practice social-distancing guidelines in the training centers as much as possible.
Despite the pause in shipping recruits, training continues at the Army's initial-entry training centers at Jackson, as well as at Fort Benning, Georgia; Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri; and Fort Sill, Oklahoma.
"They are continuing to train new soldiers, and some of those soldiers have been there six to seven weeks," McConville said, describing the training he witnessed at Jackson.
"They were doing buddy [team] live-fires ... during the training. They were six feet apart, and they were either wearing masks or gaiters when they got closer," he added.
To control the possible spread of the virus, the Army's Center for Initial Entry Training has already drastically revamped its procedures for housing and training new soldiers.
Before the two-week pause, the service cut the number of trainees it ships each week from about 1,200 to about 600 to allow them to be spaced farther apart in the barracks. In addition, training centers have started a 14-day "controlled monitoring" phase of BCT, where groups of up to 30 new trainees are kept separate from others, in case any of them develops COVID-19 symptoms in that time period.
"If someone does become positive with COVID-19, it's a very, very small amount of soldiers they may have infected, and that is how we will keep the spread of the virus down," McConville said.
-- Matthew Cox can be reached at email@example.com.