Defense Department ready to test civilians for coronavirus, but hasn't been asked yet, general says

Sean D. NaylorNational Security Correspondent
Yahoo News

Although Defense Secretary Mark Esper announced Tuesday that he was making all Defense Department labs available for COVID-19 testing for civilians, the director of the Defense Health Agency said Thursday that while those labs can perform “tens of thousands” of tests per day, so far nobody has asked them to run any for non-Defense Department personnel.

“At this time we’re only testing [Defense Department] beneficiaries,” Army Lt. Gen. Ronald Place said during a press conference for Pentagon reporters that was broadcast via live stream. “We stand ready to support the needs of the country … but at present we have not been asked to add our labs to the myriad labs across the country that have that capability.”

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The speed and availability of testing for COVID-19 has been controversial in the United States, with many patients claiming they were denied tests even after displaying symptoms of the disease. But Place told reporters that his 15 labs had lots of excess capacity.

“We’ve tested a little bit more than 1,000 across [Defense Department] laboratories and have the capability to do way more than that,” he said. (A Pentagon information sheet distributed Thursday morning stated that the labs had tested a total of 1,574 patients but had a capacity to test 9,096 per day.)

The “current methodology” that the military labs and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention use to test for COVID-19 takes between four and six hours per test to process. The test swabs typically arrive in batches, so “all labs are relatively limited in the speed” at which they can process the tests, Place said. But he expressed hope that the labs’ testing rate might increase soon.

“The CDC, working with industry, is looking at other methodologies for testing this particular virus that would take much less time,” he said. “That said, we are far from being overwhelmed in our laboratories.”

There are roughly 1.3 million active-duty servicemembers in the U.S. military, but the reason fewer than 2,000 of them have been tested for COVID-19 is that the Pentagon “is following CDC guidelines that call for screening potential cases of COVID-19 prior to conducting a confirmatory lab test,” said Kevin Dwyer, a spokesman for Place, in emailed answers to follow-up questions from Yahoo News. “Health care providers make the decision to test based on exposure risk, symptoms and the CDC guidance. If a patient’s screening shows they meet the requirements for testing, a sample will be taken and the test will be conducted by a [Defense Department] lab.”

“We’re not individually testing everyone,” Place said.

 Appearing with Place at the press conference was Navy Surgeon General Rear Adm. Bruce Gillingham, who said the Navy does not yet have equipment to test sailors for COVID-19 at sea. However, “samples can and are being sent to shore for testing” at the Defense Department laboratories, he said.

“While awaiting results, symptomatic sailors live in separate quarters where they can maintain appropriate social distancing,” Gillingham said. “We are also actively working to identify and acquire new testing platforms for shipboard diagnostics as they become available.”

The Navy has yet to detect any cases of community transmission at sea, according to Gillingham. The “very small handful” of sailors assigned to ships who have tested positive for COVID-19 have done so while the ships were in port, not underway, he said.

“Those individuals have been immediately identified, isolated and, if requiring treatment, they’ve been provided appropriate treatment for their condition,” he said. “We are watching that very carefully.”

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