Military labs have still not conducted a single coronavirus test on a civilian more than a week after Secretary of Defense Mark Esper offered to help test civilians for the coronavirus, despite widespread complaints about a lack of adequate testing across the US.
“We are not maxing our capacity in our labs around the world,” Joint Staff Surgeon Brig. Gen. Paul Friedrichs said at a Pentagon press conference Wednesday, adding that the Defense Department is currently operating 16 labs capable of conducting the test.
“We have not received an RFA, a request for assistance, from HHS that I’m aware of,” he said, referring to the Department of Health and Human Services.
“But we do have capacity in some of our labs. We’ve identified that to HHS,” he added.
Several hours after the Pentagon said it had not received a request for assistance with testing, HHS told CNN it had since made an “initial request for assistance” from the Defense Department.
“HHS has submitted an initial request for assistance to DOD and both departments are in the process of assessing the capabilities to partner on testing,” the statement from HHS said.
The news comes as the US has lagged behind other advanced nations in per capita testing for the coronavirus, with the number of Covid-19 cases in the United States surpassing 64,000 and the number of deaths reaching at least 900 on Wednesday. People across the country — including a sitting congressman — have told CNN that they have been unable to get tests.
The lack of civilian testing by Defense Department labs comes more than a week after Esper said that he would make those labs available for such tests.
“The Department has made our 14 certified coronavirus testing labs available to test non DoD personnel as well and we will soon offer two additional labs for that purpose we hope this will provide excess capacity to the civilian population,” Esper said last week.
The Defense Department has since added two labs capable of performing the tests.
To date those 16 labs have only performed tests of military service members, their dependents and Defense Department civilians and defense contractors.
“We’ve tested a little bit more than 1,000 across DOD laboratories and have the capability to do way more than that,” US Army Lt. Gen. Ronald Place, the director of the Defense Health Agency, told reporters Thursday.
“We have the capability, if we had to — and — and right now, we haven’t — we have the capability to do tens of thousands per day,” he added.
That situation contrasts with what medical experts say could await the public. Asked Friday whether the US can currently meet demand for tests, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said, “We are not there yet.”
The US Army has also reached out to retired medical personnel to possibly volunteer to support the coronavirus response effort. In an email obtained by CNN, the Army called upon retired personnel on Wednesday looking for “voluntary recall of retired soldiers” with specific medical specialties.
“We need to hear from you STAT!” the emails reads, asking for recipients who are qualified as critical care officers or nurses, anesthesiologists, medics and other roles.
The email continues, “these extraordinary challenges require equally extraordinary solutions and that’s why we’re turning to you — trusted professionals capable of operating under constantly changing conditions. When the Nation called — you answered, and now, that call may come again.”
A spokesman for the Army said they’re “gauging the availability and capabilities of our retired career medical personnel to potentially assist with COVID-19 pandemic response efforts if needed.”
The spokesman made clear the Army does not want to interfere in any civilian medical needs, adding that “this information request will no way interfere with any care they may be providing to their communities; it is for future planning purposes only, and is completely voluntary.”