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DoD leadership updates Pentagon on COVID-19 testing capabilities

Image of Air Force Maj. Gen. (Dr.) Lee Payne speaking, with Pentagon sign behind him. Air Force Maj. Gen. (Dr.) Lee Payne, the Defense Health Agency assistant director for Combat Support, joined other Department of Defense leaders to update media about DoD’s COVID-19 testing capabilities during a media presser at the Pentagon July 30. (DoD Photo by Marvin Lynchard)

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Testing serves as a vital step in managing COVID-19-related risks to the military and the nation. Air Force Maj. Gen. (Dr.) Lee Payne, the Defense Health Agency’s assistant director for Combat Support, joined other Department of Defense leaders to update media about DoD’s testing capabilities during the COVID-19 pandemic. The officials briefed the media at the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, July 30.

The Department of Defense created the COVID-19 Lab Testing Task Force in April 2020 to address screening, surveillance, and diagnostic testing of DoD personnel. DoD selected Payne to lead this effort. The collaborative Testing Task Force has made strides in testing efforts, certifying over 125 DoD labs around the globe that are capable of conducting more than 200,000 COVID-19 tests per week. DoD successfully conducted over 540,000 COVID-19 tests since January, currently completing 50,000 to 60,000 tests a week.

“This has been a coordinated achievement, together with the Joint Staff, the military departments, and the combatant commands,” Payne said. “We’ve all come together to solve this complex problem set.”

Weekly testing for active-duty service members also increased fivefold in the past three months. Air Force Brig. Gen. (Dr.) Paul Friedrichs, Joint Staff surgeon, said confirmed cases in the military are still slightly below the U.S. average for most age groups. One exception is for the 18-24 age range. Friedrichs explained that this number results from increased testing of military recruits before and after basic training. Friedrichs praised the Testing Task Force and local commands for making these tests possible.

"We think that this is a reflection of our commitment to the [Defense Secretary Dr. Mark T. Esper's] first priority of reducing risk to the force and protecting them as they go through performing their duties to protect and defend our nation," Friedrichs said.

A part of keeping the force and civilians safe includes recognizing service members and patients who may be asymptomatic to COVID-19, but still have the antibodies. Patients who are pursuing elective surgery and active-duty service members are also screened for the disease. Some patients also volunteer to come to military medical treatment facilities to be screened for symptoms.

“The good thing about asymptomatic screening is that we are, in essence, screening the population, so we are finding people who don’t know that they have the disease. We’re isolating them. We’re doing contact tracing on those folks,” Payne said. “We’re doing that screening for mission readiness, but it also has the added benefit of reducing disease in the population.”

DoD continues to reduce risk by searching for new approaches to meet diagnostic testing demands. Payne shared goals to expand the number of available tests, innovate new technologies, and improve access to these testing mechanisms. New approaches include pooled testing and new technologies like point-of-care antigen tests and oral swab testing.

Payne noted that testing is only one part of the DoD’s risk reduction strategy. Public health measures like social distancing, restriction of movement for active-duty service members, and use of facial cloth coverings in public also play a role in managing risk.

“We are confident that the consistent use of broad spectrum risk reduction measures across the force are making and will continue to make a difference in controlling the spread of the virus,” Payne said.

Friedrichs agreed, stating that “both the individual and the collective commitment to those basic public health measures … while not necessarily high-tech, are incredibly effective. We are grateful for the support from everyone who’s embraced them in order to reduce risk to the force and to the mission.”

Payne acknowledged that the fight against COVID-19 is still not over. Public health guidance is updated regularly to reflect new information about the novel coronavirus. DoD continues to expand testing capabilities, with the MHS contributing through research, development, and medical care for service members and their families.

“We continue to learn new things about this disease each and every day,” Payne said, “but we are agile, and we adapt our strategy to protect our people. I am confident that we are doing everything we can … to enable commanders to keep their forces mission-ready, and to keep the DoD family safe and healthy.”

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