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DOD experts provide COVID-19 update at Pentagon

Image of Dr. Payne. Click to open a larger version of the image. Dr. Lee Payne, Defense Health Agency’s assistant director for combat support, gives remarks during a Nov. 24 press briefing at The Pentagon. He said the military is conducting more than 70,000 COVID-19 tests each week. (Screenshot from livestream on defense.gov)

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Department of Defense officials emphasized the importance of taking the most basic preventative measures to mitigate the spread of the COVID-19 virus at a recent briefing at the Pentagon.

The officials, including Dr. Lee Payne, DOD COVID-19 Task Force Diagnostic & Testing lead; Chief Pentagon Spokesman Jonathan Hoffman; Kenneth Rapuano, assistant secretary of defense for homeland defense and global security, and Thomas Muir, Washington headquarters services director, provided updates on an array of COVID-19-related subjects, and focused on the guidelines put forth by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The group of experts spoke with reporters and answered questions regarding the uptick in positive COVID-19 cases, both in the National Capital Region and across the country, its impact on DOD facilities and the department’s role in COVID-19 response and support. .

“From the start, the department has led on COVID-19 mitigation and response, and we are determined to do so in the coming weeks,” Hoffman said. “We have seen DOD facilities around the country adjusting their health condition levels in the last few weeks, depending on local conditions. Just last week, the acting secretary was in Norfolk when the facility increased their condition level to Charlie, and we expect to see other increases in the coming weeks.”

The DOD uses health protection conditions as a way for commanders to base their response on risk levels in cooperation with local, state or host nation guidance. Concerning COVID-19, “Charlie” is used when an area is experiencing sustained community transmission and includes cancellation of in-person events, restricted travel, and the implementation of remote work procedures. “Bravo” applies to areas that are experiencing an increase in transmissions and includes increased social distancing measures, avoiding unnecessary travel and altering work practices including telework.

The Pentagon will be transitioning to Health Condition Bravo-Plus, but the responsibility ultimately belongs to installation commanders based on the best interests of their personnel, Hoffman said.

Rapuano provided further insight into some of the specifics of the department’s response.

“DOD's primary support to U.S. government response has been providing military medical personnel to augment civilian medical facilities in areas experiencing high COVID hospitalization rates,” he said. “Today, there are over 20,000 National Guardsmen deployed in 52 states and territories providing COVID support. DOD has military medical personnel on prepare-to-deploy orders, available to support state and local requests for assistance that come through FEMA and HHS within as early as 48 hours upon request.

“Our current support includes 62 medical personnel, that's three medical support teams to support three hospitals in El Paso, Texas; 60 nurses and additional personnel to support local hospitals and long-term care facilities in North Dakota; and in Guam, we have 18 medical professionals for 24/7 telemedicine support for the civilian hospital on the island. We also have a small critical care physician team being sent to a local hospital in Guam.”

Payne’s mission, in partnership with the services and combatant commands, the DHA and the Joint Staff, is to standardize and synchronize COVID-19 testing across the DOD to mitigate risk to the force. This includes determining the best location for equipment, material and supplies necessary to perform testing, as well as the logistics required to support operational requirements.

“Since I last provided the update on this topic in July, we've continued to execute tests above the department's original estimates of 50,000 to 60,000 tests per week,” he said. “We're now conducting over 70,000 tests each week and have been for the past five weeks. These numbers are inclusive of active-duty service members and select Reserve and Guard units, such as deploying Reserve component units. We also continue to perform diagnostic and screening testing on family members and retiree beneficiaries, and to date, we've conducted over 1.7 million tests since January.”

Payne noted that the ability of the DOD to perform 70,000 tests per week is in no small part due to coordination and assistance from DHA’s inter-department, interagency and industry partners in procuring supplies and integrating and implementing emerging technologies.

Hoffman closed the briefing by reminding DOD personnel to remain vigilant in the fight against COVID-19 over the holiday season.

“Take proper precautions with regard to necessary quarantines, wash your hands regularly, maintain social distancing, limit the size of gatherings, wear a mask and if necessary, choose not to travel,” he said. “And also, please make sure you observe local regulations.”

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