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Military COVID-19 cases continue to grow as DoD begins to study asymptomatic transmission

The Defense Department is working toward being able to test troops in key national security roles, the Pentagon’s top spokesman told Military Times on Friday, but numbers aren’t yet available as to how much progress has been made.

Nearly 500 service members tested positive this week for COVID-19, following a month in which cases among service members multiplied sixfold, from 770 on April 1 to 4,704.

An outbreak that began in late March aboard the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt prompted an effort to increase testing among asymptomatic troops, as roughly 1,000 sailors within the crew of 4,800 tested positive for coronavirus, more than half of whom showed no symptoms at the time of initial testing.

Air Force Gen. John Hyten, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters April 22 that he believed the services would be able to get through their highest-priority units by the end of April, adding, “And I think we’ll rapidly get into tier two and tier three.”

But on Friday, Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman could not confirm how many of those tier one units ― which include special operations counter-terror teams, submarine crews and Air Force nuclear bomber aircrews ― had been tested, or how long it would take to work through the other tiers.

“I think Gen. Hyten’s comments were about having the capability to do that,” Hoffman said, or about 50,000 tests a week.

Tier two includes deployed forces rotating in and out of Afghanistan, Iraq, Kuwait, Africa and other combat and/or training missions, while tier three includes fowarded-deployed units ― in countries like Germany, Italy, Korea and Japan― as well as redploying troops.

“We believe we have the capacity right now to do the testing that’s requested,” Hoffman said, including units preparing for deployment.

Hoffman declined to specify the number of troops contained in those tiers as a matter of operational security.

In addition to keeping track for its own purposes, the Defense Health Agency has been tasked with monitoring and studying asymptomatic transmission of coronavirus.

Officials have estimated that anywhere from 50 to 70 percent of coronavirus infections among troops could be asymptomatic, based on initial results from TR’s crew.

With a second outbreak aboard the destroyer Kidd, the Navy was reporting 1,951 cases as of Friday, followed by the Army with 1,009. The Air Force’s total is currently 367, while the Marine Corps’ has jumped from 304 to 418 this week, amid a cluster of cases among new traines at Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego.

The National Guard is reporting 842 cases, including hundreds among airmen and soldiers who have been mobilized in support of local pandemic response efforts.

The military’s known infection rate now sits at 2,240-per-million, or just over 0.2 percent, compared to 3,154-per-million among U.S. residents, or 0.3 percent.

Peak month

As April closed out, cases among service members vastly outweighed those of civilians, dependents and contractors, suggesting a slightly flattening curve, even as testing has ramped up for service members.

The Defense Department began the month with 1,405 total cases and quadrupled its numbers to 7,145 as of May 1, according to Pentagon data.

But the department showed a slowdown in the final week of the month, adding 583 cases since Monday, 491 one of which are service members, as increased testing began to give the services a better understanding of its rate of asymptomatic infections.

There were 163 new positives recorded between Thursday and Friday, an increase of about 3 percent. Of those 4,704 service members overall, 98 have been hospitalized and 1,459 have recovered.

New cases in the other three categories closed out the week on the same slow growth curve. Civilians saw nine new cases in the last 24 hours and 41 cases this week, for an increase of about 4 percent. Of those, 91 have been hospitalized, 399 have recovered and 14 have died.

Eight dependents were diagnosed since Thursday, for a total of 37 new cases this week, a 4-percent increase bringing overall diagnoses to 887. Of those, 34 have been hospitalized, 322 have recovered and four have died.

Contractors, who have seen the highest rates of hospitalization and mortality, saw three new cases since Thursday and eight new cases this week, a 2-percent increase for a total of 431 overall. Of those, 61 have been hospitalized and seven have died.

The final week of April was also the first of the month with no new deaths. The toll has stood at 27 since April 27, or about 0.4 percent. The U.S. mortality rate is currently nearly 6 percent.

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