“I’m not aware of any lack of tests. I believe there’s been some concern about the fact that the equipment to run the tests, that specific machine, is not in Afghanistan and that’s true,” Joint Staff Surgeon of the Air Force Brig. Gen. Paul Friedrichs told reporters at the Pentagon on March 16.
The Pentagon has 13 labs across the world using the machine required to process tests. The closest military lab to Afghanistan is in Germany.
“What we do with any lab that we can’t perform in a deployed environment is we fly it or ship it to the nearest lab that can perform it,” Friedrichs said. “That doesn’t mean that they’re not getting tested.”
“We’re doing the swabs, we’re just not running the test itself in Afghanistan,” he added.
Jonathan Hoffman, a Department of Defense spokesman, told reporters of 37 reported cases of COVID-19 in the department: 18 military personnel, 13 military family members, three civilian employees, and three contractors.
None of those positive tests have come from people in Iraq or Afghanistan, Friedrichs said. As of Sunday morning, 495 tests were completed by the military.
The new information came after a U.S. Central Command representative told the House Armed Services Committee last week that soldiers were being tested on-base and samples were being sent to Germany.
Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) sent a letter to military officials last week asking for answers on coronavirus testing for the military. She said her office has received concerns that a Wisconsin Army National Guard unit in Afghanistan may be conducting operations in and around villages where there are active cases of COVID-19, the disease the new virus causes, and that “members of this unit may not have access to testing kits.”
“I believe service members should have easy access to testing regardless of where they are currently serving,” she wrote.
Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) also said last week that his office was contacted over concerns.
“We were contacted about a military base, 75 miles from the Iranian border, where a number of military personnel have flu-like symptoms but have tested negative for the flu. The base is only a few miles from a town in Afghanistan with 5 known positive cases for coronavirus,” he said in a statement.
“We asked the Department of Defense whether the Army has coronavirus testing kits physically at all bases abroad. After following up, they are still unable to tell us yes or no answer—does every military base overseas have current access to coronavirus kits?”
Pocan said he wanted an answer soon.
An outbreak of the virus in South Korea infected some service members and family members in the country. At one point, nearly 400 service members, family members, and civilians were in self-quarantine on the U.S. military base there, according to General Robert Abrams, commander of United States Forces-Korea, though that number has dropped sharply in recent weeks.
People suspected of having the virus were tested and told to self-isolate until test results returned, he told reporters in a phone call. If the test came back positive, the person went into isolation in a negative pressure room at a hospital and contact tracing was done to find people who had come into contact with the person and test them.
Social distancing measures, including asking people to maintain a certain distance from each other, were put into place, but those measures aren’t feasible in his command’s Operations Center, Abrams said.
Other mitigation measures are used there, including screening of people before they enter, limiting the number of people inside, and doing constant disinfecting with spray and other disinfectants.
A similar situation exists for other groups, such as aircrews.
“We’re still flying. We’re still training. We’re still shooting gunnery. We’re still qualifying our weapons. We’re still conducting maneuver training. All of that is possible as long as you apply the additional mitigation measures that I mentioned to you,” Abrams said.