WASHINGTON – With limited supplies of coronavirus tests available, the Pentagon is focusing first on testing those performing duties deemed most vital to national security. Atop the list are the men and women who operate the nation's nuclear forces, some counterterrorism forces, and the crew of a soon-to-deploy aircraft carrier.
Defense leaders hope to increase testing from the current rate of about 7,000 a day to 60,000 by June. This will enable them to test those showing symptoms as well as those who do not.
The current tight supply forced the Pentagon to take a phased approach, which includes testing sailors aboard the USS Nimitz, the Bremerton, Washington-based Navy carrier next in line to head to the Pacific. Officials hope to avoid a repeat of problems that plagued the virus-stricken USS Theodore Roosevelt. On Friday the Navy disclosed a virus outbreak aboard another ship at sea, the USS Kidd.
Despite President Donald Trump’s assertion that testing capacity is not an issue in the United States, Pentagon officials don’t expect to have enough tests for all service members until sometime this summer.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper recently approved the tiered approach. It expands the Pentagon's practice of testing mainly those who show symptoms of the virus to eventually testing everyone. Many virus carriers show no symptoms but can be contagious, as was discovered aboard the Roosevelt.
The aim is to allocate testing materials to protect what the military considers its most important missions, while not depleting supplies for high-risk groups in the civilian population, including the elderly at nursing homes and health care professionals on the front lines of battling the virus.
The first tier of U.S. troops are being tested this month, followed in May and June by the second-highest priority group: forces in combat zones such as Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. Next will be those abroad outside of war zones, like troops in Europe and aboard ships at sea, as well as those returning to the United States from overseas deployments.
Last in line: the remainder of the force.