Public Health Command-Pacific opened the first of four COVID-19 Surveillance Testing Laboratories in the Indo-Pacific this week.
Located at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington, the new surveillance laboratory will allow U.S. Army leaders to quickly assess the health of the force and increase mission readiness.
“Surveillance testing will initially be for large troop movements that are going to training or on a deployment rotation,” explained Lt. Col. Gerald Kellar, acting chief of the PHC-P Testing Surveillance Program. “The goal is to detect Soldiers that may be asymptomatic who are carrying the virus and reduce the spread of the virus at training centers and downrange.”
Unlike diagnostic COVID-19 testing that focuses on individual Soldiers, and which is usually conducted because of a doctor’s recommendation or identified through contact tracing, surveillance testing focuses on groups of Soldiers regardless of symptoms or possible exposure using a pooled testing approach.
Pooled testing combines respiratory samples from several people and conducts a single laboratory test to detect COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Each Soldier will submit an individual specimen, and those specimens will be pooled into groups of five to 10,” explained Kellar.
The CDC states that pooling allows laboratories to test more samples with fewer testing materials, which is useful during supply shortages.
“So, if we had a group of 5,000 Soldiers going to a training center, pooling would allow us to only run 500 tests instead of 5,000 individual tests,” said Kellar.
Kellar explained that during spikes in COVID-19 infections, critical supplies like reagents and pipetting tips for testing machines can be hard to get. Pooling allows the military to conserve resources while also proactively preventing further spread.
In addition to conserving supplies, surveillance testing will also save time, since unit medics can swab Soldiers at their location rather than sending large groups of Soldiers to a local military treatment facility to get tested.
“Once their medics collect all of the swabs, units can either mail them to one of the new surveillance labs or just bring them over,” said Kellar.
As microbiologists and laboratory technicians process the pooled samples, they can quickly determine if groups of Soldiers are healthy and ready to send to training or deployment.
According to the CDC, one of the biggest benefits to surveillance testing is if a pooled test result is negative, all the samples in that pool can be presumed negative with the single test. In other words, all of the people who provided samples can be assumed to have tested negative for COVID-19.
If the test result is positive or indeterminate, then all the specimens in the pool need to be retested individually using diagnostic testing.
“If a pool is positive, we can isolate that group of asymptomatic Soldiers and prevent additional spread,” said Kellar. “Deploying a Soldier is risky enough; there are all sorts of injury potentials.
“We don’t want people who are going to be in close quarters with each other, such as in a Humvee or tank, where they can potentially give each other the virus. So this testing will reduce those risks and help us get back to more normal military operations,” he continued.
One of the ways the new surveillance labs could help military operations return closer to normal is by decreasing the potential spread of COVID-19 during travel.
“A lot of people haven’t been able to travel due to the threat of infecting other people or themselves becoming infected,” said Kellar. “Eventually this could become something that we can do on a larger scale that could relieve some of that burden during travel.”
Over the next several months, testing capabilities will continue to expand throughout the Indo-Pacific region as PHC-P opens the remaining three COVID-19 Surveillance Testing Laboratories in Hawaii, South Korea and Japan.
“The labs in Hawaii and Korea will probably be operational in early March,” said Kellar. “Japan will be sooner; I would say by the first of the year.”
While the pooled testing will initially be just for Army personnel, PHC-P will continuously work to protect, promote and improve the health of the force and their families throughout the Indo-Pacific.
“What I want people to know is that these surveillance labs are important,” said Kellar. “Historically, the military has been known as one of the most reliable public services in our nation. We must ensure Soldiers are prepared to perform their mission. The Army has a much bigger mission than just going to war; we also support civil authorities, national disaster preparation and responsiveness, and different community endeavors … we need to have people trained and ready to respond.”