Pentagon & Congress

Defense Department should take a larger role in coronavirus testing, key lawmaker says

A top defense lawmaker wants the Defense Department to take a larger role in coronavirus testing for all Americans, both in building more test kits and possibly processing millions of samples to better gauge the public health problem.

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith, D-Wash., said military leaders are uniquely equipped to handle large-scale emergencies, both because of past wartime experience and the bureaucracy’s infrastructure.

“I would love to use the Defense Department’s logistical knowledge and problem solving approach on this problem,” he said in a conference call with reporters on Tuesday.

“It’s going to require a massive amount of testing before we can allow people to get back to work (after this pandemic) … How do we make sure the swabs and testing are sufficient? How do we move them? I could see a role where the National Guard could help states with that.”

Congressional leaders allotted about $10 billion in the last coronavirus stimulus package to Defense Department response, but much of that money was directed specifically at health care efforts specifically for military members.

Smith praised Defense Department outreach work so far on the pandemic, which has included the deployment of a pair of medical support ships to New York and Los Angeles as well as behind-the-scenes medical research on the fast-spreading virus. Nearly 27,000 National Guard troops have been mobilized in state response efforts.

So far, the coronavirus has infected more than 375,000 Americans and killed more than 12,000.

The armed services committee chairman criticized the White House for not relying more on the military in the response to the national emergency, and said he hopes that can be fixed in the weeks ahead.

Lawmakers are already discussing new coronavirus relief legislation to couple with the $2-trillion-plus measure they adopted last month. Smith said if additional defense funding is included in that, he would like to see it directed at helping with testing and logistics works related to the virus

Most congressional work has been sidelined as lawmakers stay in their districts under national quarantine recommendations. Smith said his committee members are working remotely on issues related to the annual defense authorization bill, which he hopes to have ready for full committee debate when lawmakers return to Washington, D.C.

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