Since the start of the COVID-19 outbreak that has now infected more than 50 service members and thousands of Americans, military officials have assured that the young, healthy, robust troops are at a relatively low risk for complications associated with the respiratory disease. But at the same time, public health officials have stressed that symptom-less people could be unknowingly carrying the virus and passing it to others.
Still, the Defense Department is following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance to limit testing only to troops showing symptoms like cough, fever and body aches, even as data emerges that coronavirus is affecting young people more seriously than previously thought.
“One of the challenges with any infectious disease is when it becomes testable,” Lt. Gen. Ronald Place, director of the Defense Health Agency, told reporters Thursday. “What we’ve found — at least the current information — is asymptomatic people, even if eventually becoming positive wouldn’t screen positive at that time.”
With testing kits in limited supply and without a reliable chance that troops without coughs and fevers will come back positive, the policy is to screen for symptoms and contact with other confirmed cases before testing.
“Some spread might be possible before people show symptoms; there have been reports of this occurring with this new coronavirus, but this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads,” according to the CDC.
However, there have been cases of asymptomatic positives. The actor Idris Elba, for example, took to Instagram on Tuesday to announce his diagnosis.
Elba said that while he was experiencing no symptoms, he was motivated to get tested after recently meeting Canadian First Lady Sophie Gregoire Trudeau, who tested positive March 12.
There are 15 DoD labs currently analyzing tests, according to a Thursday update from the Pentagon, with the ability to test more than 9,000 samples a day.
At the same time, public health officials outside the government have argued that more widespread testing is necessary to get a realistic handle on how far the pandemic has spread.
“The testing capacity remains extraordinarily limited compared to where we should be. And in many ways we are absolutely flying blind at the moment,” Michael Mina, an epidemiologist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, told NPR Wednesday.
DoD has analyzed more than 1,500 tests so far, and total cases in the military community hit 81 as of early Thursday morning. This is a drop from Wednesday’s reported number of 89, which was a reporting error, according to a defense official who was not authorized to speak on the record about the issue.
The most recent Pentagon data shows that there have been 84 total cases across defense personnel: 53 service members, 9 civilians, 10 dependents and 12 contractors. Of those, 17 are currently hospitalized and three have recovered, while the rest are in home isolation.
None of the current 51 diagnosed troops are hospitalized, but more broadly, the CDC has found that 40 percent of those hospitalized for COVID-19 are in the range of age 20 to 54, which covers almost the entire age spectrum of service members.
The first service member to test positive for coronavirus, a South Korea-based soldier, is 23.