As of Thursday morning, more than 3,000 sailors assigned to the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt had been tested for COVID-19, Gen. John Hyten, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters. Of the 416 who came up positive, just 187 had shown symptoms of coronavirus.
In recent weeks the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has stressed that coronavirus can be spread by asymptomatic carriers. With that in mind, the Defense Department this week mandated cloth face coverings on department property to limit the risk of transmission.
“What we’ve learned certainly in the Navy, with regard to COVID-19 ― we’re learning that stealth, in the form of asymptomatic transmission, is this adversary’s secret power," Rear Adm. Bruce Gillingham, the Navy’s surgeon general, told reporters Friday.
But that revelation has not yet to produce a call for more widespread testing.
The military’s health system is not pushing for testing of asymptomatic troops, even those in units where a member has tested positive, Thomas McCaffery, the assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, told Military Times on Friday.m
The reason is twofold: First, current testing methods have shown some false negatives, marring the chances of getting a full picture of the infection rate in the military, and second, it’s the Pentagon’s position that testing someone who is asymptomatic could take resources away from someone in greater need of a test.
“The constraint of the current testing technology is, you may test negative, but the testing is not so accurate to say that you know that person is negative,” McCaffery said. “We do know that we have folks who are asymptomatic, who may have tested negative, who are infected.”
Asked whether it would be better to have a more complete picture, imperfect as it may be, of the military infection rate than now, McCaffery pointed to the limited number of testing supplies nationwide.
“In that environment we want to make sure we devote those finite resources to the highest priority,” he said, meaning patients with the most severe symptoms.
The most recent DoD data available shows that almost 23,000 troops, dependents and retirees had been tested for COVID-19. On Friday morning, the Pentagon reported 2,031 confirmed cases among troops, and an overall total of 3,366 cases ― which includes dependents, civilians and contractors.
It would be safe to assume, McCaffery said, that there are asymptomatic carriers in the military, though there are no estimates.
“Where I don’t want to go is give you a sense that we have a precision that it’s hundreds or thousands," he said.
The Pentagon is hopeful that eventual antibody testing, to show who has already contracted and fought off the virus, will give a better picture, McCaffery said.
And the department would re-think it’s testing position, he added, if more testing kits and capacity become available.
Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members.