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DOD continues to increase COVID-19 test capacity

Technician wearing gloves putting a sample into a container A 96th Medical Group laboratory technician at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, handles a patient sample to test for COVID-19. The Military Health System has 158 operational labs with the overall capacity to conduct nearly 300,000 tests per week, according to Dr. Lee Payne, the lead of the Coronavirus Task Force diagnostics and testing effort. (U.S. Air Force photo by Ilka Cole)

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The Department of Defense has increased its overall capacity to conduct tests for COVID-19 by nearly 50% since July, according to the lead for the Coronavirus Task Force diagnostics and testing effort.

Air Force Maj. Gen. (Dr.) Lee Payne told a Pentagon press conference Nov. 24 that there are 158 operational laboratories with the overall capacity to conduct nearly 300,000 tests per week within the Military Health System. That compares to July numbers of 125 global labs certified for COVID-19 testing with the ability to perform more than 200,000 tests per week. In March as the first wave of the pandemic spread, there were only 15 testing sites able to perform 1,000 tests per week.

DOD is “regularly able to complete over 99% of their prior tests each week,” Payne said, despite supply shortages that are occurring in all the United States. DOD “has taken key steps to identify critical points in this supply chain and appropriate actions to mitigate these shortages throughout each phase of the pandemic,” he said.

“We will continue to lead from the front, identifying and investing in new technologies that will allow the department to accomplish our missions and protect our force and families,” Payne said.

Innovations allowing this high rate of completed tests include moving from the gold standard molecular COVID-19 PCR (polymerase chain reaction) tests to new technology such as point-of-care molecular tests, oral swab, and quick blood antigen tests.

Army Col. Mikal Stoner, the acting DHA Lab Division chief, said in a statement: "Using our large DOD labs with higher throughput allowed more testing to occur with less staffing resources, in addition to adding more testing locations and platforms throughout DOD."

In addition, she noted, an MHS Lab Survey was created early on that allowed a view of supplies and testing numbers across all of MHS, including operational units.

Moving toward the future, “we are looking into surveillance pooling models, which use fewer resources and better support commands and their surveillance mission," Stoner said.

These increased capabilities have been happening while DOD has been leveraging Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Food and Drug Administration guidance to develop protocols “that help frontline clinicians determine the right test for the right situation, depending on a patient’s unique circumstances,” Payne told the media briefing.

“We look forward to continuing to expand our partnerships, capitalize on and implement new emerging research, technologies and capabilities that will allow us to grow our testing ability and further reduce the spread of COVID-19, ensuring mission readiness and keeping our service members and their families safe.”

As of Dec. 2, there were more than 16.2 million COVID-19 cases and nearly 270,000 deaths across the United States, according to the CDC. As of the same date, the DOD reported 120,398 cases and 130 deaths.

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