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Military coronavirus testing rollout to prioritize nuclear forces, troops in combat zones

U.S. Navy Sailors with 2nd Medical Battalion, 2nd Marine Logistics Group, pre-screen Marines and Sailors for the coronavirus disease after returning from exercise overseas on Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, North Carolina, March 24, 2020.

SEAIRA MOORE/U.S. MARINE CORPS

By MISSY RYAN | The Washington Post | Published: April 23, 2020

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The U.S. military on Wednesday announced plans to roll out expanded coronavirus testing beginning with nuclear forces and troops engaged in combat, a process that would be widened to include other service members as more diagnostic materials become available.

Gen. John Hyten, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters that Defense Secretary Mark Esper had recently approved a plan to allocate the force into four tiers that would govern prioritization of coronavirus testing.

Officials said the first tier would include troops involved in "critical national capabilities," such as nuclear forces and at least some Special Operations forces; the second would include troops assigned to combat zones and those involved in the domestic virus response; the third would be troops located overseas on priority missions and those being brought back to the United States following deployments; all remaining troops would make up the last tier.

Hyten said testing would be completed this month for "tier one" troops, "focusing our supplies and efforts on these critical forces like our strategic deterrent, making sure that they're always full-up, always ready to go."

"To get to the entire force, the 1.4 million active duty and the entire [National] Guard and Reserve, is going to take us into the summer, but I think we'll get to the deploying, redeploying forces, the forces engaged, all of the tier one forces next month," Hyten said.

Officials said the Pentagon would at the same time prioritize testing according to movements, such as submarine and aircraft carrier deployments and basic-training arrivals. Since the U.S. coronavirus outbreak accelerated, the military has already taken steps to adjust and even pause training recruits.

"So we're moving quickly. It is a supply issue right now, which is causing us not to be able to go down the full spectrum of all of the forces," Hyten said. "That's why we came up with the tiered approach."

While the U.S. military has been testing troops for weeks, focused on the sites of known outbreaks, including the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt, a national shortage of supplies, restrictive testing policies and several other factors have limited testing.

More than 3,500 uniformed service members have tested positive to date. Two have died — a relatively low number officials attribute to the overall youth and fitness of the force.

The plan outlined by Hyten and Deputy Defense Secretary David Norquist provides the most detailed glimpse to date of how the Pentagon plans to expand preventive testing across the force in an attempt to avoid disruption of its core security mission.

Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has publicly laid out an objective of being able to conduct 60,000 tests per day in the next month or so. However, asked about that goal, Norquist seemed to suggest that the department would initially have a much lower target of about 50,000 per week.

The Pentagon has issued department-wide guidelines on physical distancing, the use of masks, increased cleaning and other precautions. Close to a million employees are teleworking.

Norquist said the department would take several steps for troops who cannot maintain physical distance, including recruits and personnel located in close quarters on ships. They include quarantines for 14 to 21 days, "depending on the risk tolerance," in an attempt to identify those who might be infected but not yet exhibiting symptoms, and diagnostic tests and temperature checks before troops leave quarantine.

"These interim measures enable us to reduce the risk so we continue to operate until we develop therapeutics and vaccines," Norquist said. "And as we learn more about the virus, we will continue to evolve our approach."

The officials acknowledged that challenges remained as they seek to ensure the health of the force, including uncertainty about how long the virus could linger undetected before symptoms present.

The officials said the department would eventually want to employ antibody testing to learn more about the virus and potential immunity obtained by those who have been infected.

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