Pentagon Switches Gears on COVID-19 Testing, Plans to Screen All Members

North Carolina National Guard soldiers conduct drive-thru and walk-up COVID-19 testing for employees of a Chatham County food processing plant
North Carolina National Guard soldiers work with local health and emergency officials to conduct drive-thru and walk-up COVID-19 testing for employees of a Chatham County food processing plant on April 23, 2020. (U.S. Army/Staff Sgt. Mary Junell)

The Defense Department is adopting a tiered system for testing service members for the novel coronavirus, beginning with those highest at risk or deemed essential to operations, with the goal of testing all service members by summer.

Air Force Gen. John Hyten, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Wednesday that the broader testing policy moves the department from a "diagnostic process" to a "diagnostic-screening" approach that, with public health measures, will improve readiness.

"Testing ... is a powerful tool [that] when combined with quarantine and other public health measures can improve our overall force availability," Hyten said.

Under the new system, tier one service members have top priority, including active-duty and Reserve personnel treating COVID-19 patients and those working in field hospitals and alternate facilities, as well as personnel in critical national security roles, such as nuclear forces, and special operations counter-terrorism units.

The next group to receive testing will include service members deployed for overseas contingency operations, followed by those stationed overseas, as well as personnel scheduled to deploy. Finally, tier four will be all "other forces," Hyten said.

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He said testing for the first group is underway, as is testing for all new basic trainees, and is expected to be completed by the end of the month, while tier two and three tests could be complete by early June.

"I think we'll rapidly get into tier two and tier three," Hyten said.

While Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley said he would like the U.S. military to reach a point where it is conducting 60,000 tests a day, Deputy Defense Secretary David Norquist said Wednesday that starting with 50,000 tests a week will meet the services' critical needs.

"What we're looking at to cover is the key tiers. ... It's when the submarines set sail, it's not just every submarine crew," Norquist said.

The new approach is in addition to the immediate testing of individuals with symptoms and all hospital patients. Previous guidance issued by the Pentagon reserved testing for symptomatic patients at high risk for developing a severe case of the disease, including those who are older or have an underlying health condition, and anyone hospitalized.

The services also will continue screening for symptoms with questionnaires and temperature checks, tracking potential exposure and enforcing 14-day quarantines.

Hyten said the DoD is working with the White House, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and the Health and Human Services Department, along with the private sector, to obtain test kits and analysis equipment.

As of Friday, 3,919 military personnel have tested positive for COVID-19 and 97 have been hospitalized. This includes nearly 1,500 sailors, 971 soldiers, 343 airmen, 282 Marines and 741 members of the Army and Air Force National Guard, many of whom have been called up to assist with COVID-19 response in their states.

Since the pandemic became more widespread in the United States, 43,700 National Guard members have been activated and more than 61,000 active-duty and activated Reserve members, including 4,400 military medical personnel, are engaged in COVID-19 relief operations.

-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.

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