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More than 5,000 troops positive for coronavirus as military expands testing

How does the Pentagon plan to get all troops and service members tested for COVID-19? Military Times' Pentagon Bureau Chief Meghann Myers breaks down the strategy and pitfalls that lay ahead for the military as it tries to fight back coronavirus among its ranks.

The total number of service members who have tested positive for COVID-19 hit 5,019 on Wednesday morning, according to the latest Defense Department data, as the military services work through a plan to strategically test asymptomatic service members according to their missions.

DoD has ramped up its testing capacity to about 30,000 a week, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs told reporters Tuesday, and is now shooting to be able to test about 60,000 a week by June.

“But testing the entire force … is probably not a complete requirement,” Army Gen. Mark Milley told Military Times.

Three weeks ago, Milley set a goal of 60,000 tests a day, but that number has been revised. Now, Milley says, doing 60,000 a week would be enough to sustainably test all of the key groups who will need to be cleared of COVID-19, on a rotating basis.

There are four testing tiers, starting with basic trainees, as well elite counter-terror and nuclear deterrence units. Those numbers will fluctuate week to week, as recruits flow in and units are tapped for duty.

“For the strategic forces, you can rest assured that they’re all squared away,” Milley said, after the Joint Staff set a goal to have tier one completed by the end of April. “We’re working our way through tier two. Tier two is a much larger population.”

The tier two includes forces deployed abroad, as well as units preparing to deploy, a number that will also fluctuate from week to week. Tier three includes troops forward-deployed to countries like Germany, Italy, Japan and Korea, as well as troops currently deployed who are preparing to head home.

“We believe we have the capacity right now to do the testing that’s requested,” Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman told Military Times on Friday.

Tier four, considered to be most other troops stationed in the U.S., will not be 100 percent tested. Instead, there will be program dubbed “sentinel testing," Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Tuesday.

“Whereby we randomly test groups of people … to understand how many asymptomatic carriers may be out there,” he said.

By the numbers

Cases among troops have grown 2 percent this week, from 4,912 on Monday to 5,019 on Wednesday. The new number brings the infection rate to just over 0.2 percent, while the overall U.S. rate is just under 0.4 percent.

The Navy has been the hardest hit, with 42 percent of cases, or 2,110, following outbreaks on an aircraft carrier and destroyer. The Army has just under half that number, reporting 1,050 as of Tuesday. The Marine Corps is reporting 434 and the Air Force 397, while the National Guard totals 910 soldiers and airmen diagnosed.

Of those, 105 have been hospitalized, 1887 have recovered and two have died.

To date, DoD has reported 7,604 positive cases, with service members taking up a larger and larger proportion of those as asymptomatic testing rolls out, while numbers among civilians, dependents and contractors have slowed in the past two weeks.

So far this week, 34 civilians have tested positive, an increase of 3 percent, from 1,207 to 1,241. Of those, 33 have been hospitalized, 525 have recovered and 14 have died.

Seven dependents have been diagnosed, an increase of 2 percent, from 884 to 901. Among those,14 have been hospitalized, 421 have recovered and four have died.

And 12 contractors have tested positive this week, an increase of 3 percent, from 431 to 443. Of those, 25 have been hospitalized, 172 have recovered and seven had died.

Deaths have held steady at 27 since April 27, reflecting a 0.4 percent death rate for DoD cases and 0.004 percent for troops, versus 6 percent nationwide.

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