U.S. Military Also Struggling To Ramp Up Coronavirus Testing Capacity

Apr 20, 2020
Originally published on April 20, 2020 5:41 pm
Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Testing - everyone - most everyone agrees it is vital to beating back the threat of the coronavirus. Though we are watching a heated debate unfold between the White House and some governors over how quickly to test and on what scale. So what about within the U.S. military? Well, our Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman is here to walk us through testing and U.S. military life.

Hey there, Tom.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hello.

KELLY: How does the military compare to the civilian world on testing?

BOWMAN: Well, they're pretty much in the same situation as the governors on testing, trying to ramp it up as fast as they can. We recently asked the top military officer at the Pentagon, Gen. Mark Milley, about testing. Listen to what he said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARK MILLEY: And we want to - right now, capability-wise, I think it's 8,700 - call it 9,000 or so tests a day or - we can test DOD - in our DOD labs. We've got an objective here of getting - ramping that up to about 60,000 tests here in about 45 days or so.

BOWMAN: So the general wants to increase the daily testing by nearly seven times, Mary Louise, especially for key military groups, special operations forces, carriers, sub crews, also recruits to replenish the overall military; of course, the entire 2-million-member military, the testing will have to increase a lot more. But even getting to that smaller number of 60,000 daily tests by early June, Mary Louise, could be difficult because everyone, governors and generals, needs more testing equipment - the swabs, chemicals and the machines - to analyze those samples.

KELLY: Let me ask you, Tom, about a specific situation in the military, which is life in the cramped quarters of U.S. aircraft carriers. You know, the USS Theodore Roosevelt made all kinds of news after the former captain sounded the alarm about coronavirus outbreak on board. Where does testing in the Navy stand?

BOWMAN: Well, the Navy's wrapping up testing on the Roosevelt. It is now focused on testing another aircraft carrier, getting ready to deploy the Nimitz. The Navy's sending test kits and equipment to the Nimitz in an effort to avoid a replay of that outbreak on the Roosevelt. So, again, testing is key. And along those lines, a top Pentagon official told reporters just today she's in talks with a company to produce millions more swabs for testing. And we're told several hundred million dollars will be set aside for buying more test kits and other equipment. No word yet - and this is key - on when that will be delivered. Everybody needs it quickly.

KELLY: Yeah. And it is stunning to hear that the military is competing along with everybody else to get all these supplies. I mean, why wouldn't the U.S. military be leading the charge on testing? We hear the president using wartime language to talk about the virus. Testing would seem to be the vital weapon in that war.

BOWMAN: Well, it definitely is a vital weapon in the war, absolutely. But the military is playing a supporting role here, even though they're clearly among the most visible around the country. You see the National Guard out there as well. Now, FEMA is a lead agency and decides where the field hospital go, what testing supplies are produced and so forth. Now, one key question, Mary Louise, when this is over is why Germany has done a much better job of testing? Some German students are going back to school on May 4. I posed that question about Germany to Gen. John Hyten, the No. 2 officer at the Pentagon. He serves in the White House Coronavirus Task Force, and he referred me to the White House.

KELLY: That is NPR's Tom Bowman, reporting or trying to report.

Thank you there, Tom.

BOWMAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.