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‘No availability’ of coronavirus tests for troops in Afghanistan

Many of the 13,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan are deployed near Iran

In a March 11 letter to Pentagon and National Guard leaders, Wisconsin Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin asked if testing is available in Afghanistan.
In a March 11 letter to Pentagon and National Guard leaders, Wisconsin Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin asked if testing is available in Afghanistan. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

U.S. troops in Afghanistan are not being tested for the novel coronavirus, U.S. military officials told the House Armed Services Committee. 

There is “no availability of testing for COVID-19” for troops there, a U.S. Central Command representative told the committee in a March 12 statement made available by the committee on Friday.

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“Military personnel who believe they are at risk or have flu-like symptoms have immediate access to on-base medical care,” the command official said. “This care includes screening and thorough medical diagnosis. If at any time in the course of medical examination members are suspected or considered high risk with symptoms (a requirement to meet testing protocols per the Center for Disease Control & World Health Organization), the medical community will send samples to appropriate testing facilities at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany and/or civilian testing facilities in Munich, Germany, to conduct a COVID-19 test.”

[Top health official calls dearth of US coronavirus tests a ‘failing’]

The statement also indicated that “precautionary quarantine or isolation care procedures are in place at each of our Military Medical Treatment Facilities in Afghanistan.”

The committee has asked Defense Department officials similar coronavirus questions about U.S. troops stationed or deployed in or near other risk countries in addition to Afghanistan. The committee is still waiting for replies, an aide said. 

Troops deployed near Iran

Members of Congress are particularly concerned about the nearly 13,000 troops in Afghanistan because many of them are deployed near Iran.

Iran has more than 11,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus, the third most in the world behind China’s 80,000-plus cases and Italy’s more than 15,000, according to the Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University. Many U.S. troops are stationed in Italy.

South Korea, another nation with a substantial U.S. military presence, has nearly 8,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 — the fourth most in the world.

Congressional aides said they have been told that Central Command is weighing whether to scale back or cancel military exercises in the region, but no decisions have been made.   

It could not be immediately ascertained if the Senate Armed Services Committee has asked the Pentagon for answers about coronavirus protections for U.S. troops. 

In a statement on Thursday, Oklahoma Republican James M. Inhofe, the Senate committee’s chairman, lauded the Pentagon for “working diligently, around the clock, to limit impact on our missions at home and across the world.” Inhofe said the department’s recently issued health protection guidance “will help protect all DOD personnel from unnecessary risk of contracting coronavirus.”

In addition to the House Armed Services Committee’s queries, at least two members of Congress have asked the Defense Department for answers about U.S. troops at risk for exposure to the virus in Afghanistan.

Wisconsin worries

Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., a member of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, received word recently about members of a regiment of the Wisconsin Army National Guard’s 1st Battalion deployed in Afghanistan who were experiencing symptoms but unable to obtain testing. 

In a March 11 letter to Pentagon and National Guard leaders, Baldwin asked if testing is available in Afghanistan. She also asked how the department is assessing risk in its various theaters of operations, whether it has updated its health guidance and if it has coordinated with federal medical experts, among other questions. Aides to Baldwin said Friday that the senator has yet to receive answers. 

“Our #WI National Guard service members need access to #coronavirus testing now, regardless of where they are currently serving,” Baldwin tweeted Friday. “I’m working to make sure that our brave men and women overseas can stay healthy and safe during this global public health emergency.”

Likewise, Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wis., issued a statement Thursday saying his office had been contacted about a military base in Afghanistan that is 75 miles from the Iranian border and where troops have exhibited flu-like symptoms but tested negative for the flu. Aides to Pocan would not provide additional details about the unit. 

“The base is only a few miles from a town in Afghanistan with 5 known positive cases for coronavirus,” Pocan said in the statement.

Pocan also had asked the Pentagon whether test kits are available for troops deployed abroad. As of Friday, he had not received answers, a member of his staff said.

The Pentagon has reduced participation in a number of military exercises to cut the risk of troops being exposed to the virus or contributing to the spread.

The decision on whether to curb or cancel Central Command exercises will be taken against the backdrop of growing U.S. tensions with Iranian proxies in Iraq. U.S. military fighter jets bombed Kataib Hezbollah bases on Thursday in response to rocket attacks that had killed two U.S. military personnel and a British servicemember the day before. 

Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, chief of Central Command, has said that some Iranian leaders have been hit by the virus, in addition to thousands of Iranian citizens. 

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