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Army Senior Leaders Update on the Army's Response to COVID-19

April 16, 2020
Secretary Ryan D. McCarthy, Secretary Of The Army; General James McConville, Chief Of Staff Of The Army; Sergeant Major Of The Army Michael Grinston; Lieutenant General R. Scott Dingle, Surgeon General Of The Army; Lieutenant General Charles A. Flynn, Director Of Operations And Plans, Headquarters Department Of The Army

STAFF:  Ladies and gentlemen, I’m Army colonel Sunset Belinsky.  We have the secretary of the Army, chief of staff of the Army, the Army sergeant major, G3, and surgeon general.  We will go through brief opening comments and then we will take questions from the phone first.  We'll do two from the phone, one in the room.  And we have 30 minutes.

ARMY SECRETARY RYAN D. MCCARTHY:  Great.

Okay, good afternoon.  Give you a quick update to the points and then we'll try to stay at least until 12:30.

At present the U.S. Army has more than 7,000 personnel directly supporting the Joint Land Force Component Command.  We have more than 2,000 people deployed to support engineering planning and assessments for alternate care facilities.  We're incredibly proud of the almost 25,000 Army National Guardsmen responding in every state of the nation, nested with FEMA and other agencies as we fight the virus with a whole-of-government approach.

We have just shy of 2,000 U.S. Army Reservists in the Urban Augmentation Medical Task Forces on the front lines deployed in New York, New Jersey, Michigan, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut.

Along the prevent lines of effort, our Army research community is working 24 hours a day, seven days a week in the pursuit of a vaccine.  The Army is now testing vaccine prototypes on small animals before down-selecting those candidates for testing safety in humans.  The Walter Reed Army Institute of Research has now produced three vaccine types, with the Army planning to select one to move forward to initial clinical testing in humans.  This candidate is among several being considered by the U.S. government.

We're also coordinating closely with our other U.S. government partners to leverage competencies across the government to accelerate vaccine development, including our animal comparison model, testing that is now two weeks ahead of schedule.

This week at the White House, COVID-19 task force requested three of our top tier scientists to serve as a special part detail to develop solutions to substantially strengthen and expand U.S. COVID-19 testing.

We have asked industry partners for help and they've responded.  They're retooling production lines to manufacture masks, gowns, ventilators, and other critical personal protective equipment.

We have directed the Army Expeditionary Technology Search Program to reach out to the innovation community and find a rapid ventilator production system to support field hospitals that are still acquiring critical infrastructure such as generators and pressurized oxygen.

This week, those select innovators will participate in the Army's version of a virtual Shark Tank, pitching ideas for low-cost, low-maintenance ventilators.  The successful pitches will turn into an initial investment of $100,000 to develop their ideas and a shot at production contracts.

Tomorrow, I'll be traveling to Chicago and then onto Rock Island's Joint Manufacturing Technology Center, where they are printing 3D parts for ventilators and face shields, which we have offered to make for FEMA, and producing parts currently ahead of schedule.

Additionally, our industry partners continue to bend metal and keep the Army on track in our modernization efforts, all the while adapting their production lines to adhere to social distancing protocols.  This ultimately ensures the Army's able to respond to any threat the nation faces today and in the future.

The Army will continue to fight this invisible enemy with unwavering resolve and unrelenting effort.  We will continue to make fact-based decisions and seek to mitigate the effect on our force and our families.

Decisions such as extending travel restrictions the secretary of defense announced yesterday will ensure that we preserve the readiness of our force.  We are pursuing policies and ways to help ease the added pressure on the force.

So as you hear, the Army's fighting on the virus on multiple fronts, from medical support efforts to our cities to searching for a vaccine in order to stay ready, so we can continue to be the Army the nation deserves.

I'll hand this over to the chief.  We'll be happy to take your questions.

CHIEF OF STAFF OF THE ARMY GEN. JAMES MCCONVILLE:  So thank you, Mr. Secretary.

And first, as of this morning, we've had 992 soldiers from all three components test positive for the COVID-19 virus.

And as of this morning, we have 14 out of our 15 Urban Augmentation Medical Task Forces employed.  Six are distributed throughout New York City hospitals and the Javits Center, and as of last night, Javits had over 300 COVID patients and has seen more than 840 patients to date.  Three are assigned to New Jersey, one to operate out of the Convention and Expo Center in Edison, one will provide augmentation at the Newark Hospital, and one will arrive later this weekend to support Atlantic City.

We have one in Stamford, Connecticut, operating out of the Bennett Medical Center.  And we have two task forces in Massachusetts both to support the Boston area.  One is on the ground, and the second medical task force arrives this weekend to begin integration.

We have a team in Detroit, Michigan, at the TCF Center.  And one moving today to Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst to provide support to East Strasburg, Pennsylvania.

 We have one remaining medical task force prepared and ready to go to support.

The two field hospitals that were supporting Seattle have completed their mission and will be on a 48-hour prepare to deploy orders for follow-on COVID-19 support.

Yesterday I visited Fort Jackson with the sergeant major and we personally walked through the new measures in place for our trainees.  I want to assure the parents and families of soldiers that even in this time of uncertainty, one thing remains true:  we have a sacred obligation to take care of your sons and daughters, and ensure they are ready to support and defend this nation, and we have the right measures in place to do that.

And to our adversaries that wish us harm, do not be mistaken.  The United States Army stands ready to defeat any threat, just like we'll defeat this virus.

STAFF:  With that, we'll go to the phones.  Lita?

Q:  Morning.  A couple quick updates, and then a question.

Do you have any large cluster outbreaks within the number of Soldiers that you said have tested positive at any of the bases?

And second, can you talk a little bit -- you had talked about the two week tactical pause, and you mentioned Fort Jackson.  Can you tell us whether this is going to kick off next week, and how that's going to work, and whether or not you have enough tests, test kits to do whatever testing you think you're going to need as you move back into greater training?

SEC. MCCARTHY:  So clustered, you have the clustered data, General Dingle?  Do you have any locations today? Because you're defining the cluster was that the CDC number of 10 to 29, or something like that?  Lita?

Q:  Yes.

LIEUTENANT GENERAL R. SCOTT DINGLE:  Just the training battalion force.

SEC. MCCARTHY:  Yeah.  One training battalion at Fort Jackson that was just below 40.

LT. GEN. DINGLE:  Fifty to 55.

SEC. MCCARTHY:  Okay.

One training battalion at Fort Jackson, South Carolina had about 50, and had no more since then.  We've done pretty well overall, all things considered, one location.

GEN. MCCONVILLE:  And one of the things, when I visited yesterday, is the measures that they put in place, very extensive measures, from screening at the gate to screening when the new soldiers come in to the test equipment that's there.

The new soldiers arriving, which will begin next week, will go through these new processes that are in place, and that'll put them in a 14-day quarantine after they've been processed through and screened at the recruiting station, the MEPS station, coming on post, and then a 14-day quarantine, what we're really calling controlled monitoring, because they are going to be doing some training with their cohort, but they will have limited exposure to the other soldiers on that post.

And then we do have the testing capability.  We have just received two of the GeneX-16 machines, along with two of the BioFire machines.  So they do have the capability up to about, I think it's a little over 700 testing capability a day, and that will give them the capability that they need in the future to make sure that we can maintain the safety of the new recruits.

SEC. MCCARTHY:  And then the other question was on training, right?  Was that right Lita, the other question was on training?

Q:  Yes.  If you could just talk about the processes you just touched on it a little bit, as you turn it back on.

GEN. MCCONVILLE:  We have not stopped training.  Even as we were at Fort Jackson yesterday, they're continuing to train new soldiers.  And some of those soldiers have been there for six to seven weeks, and they were doing buddy live fires.  What you would have seen if you were with us is during the training they were six feet apart.  And they were either wearing masks or gaiters when they get closer.  We're going to see this type of training continue to happen.

The philosophy behind it is to create a safety bubble where there’s minimum exposure to other soldiers, so if someone does become positive for COVID-19, it's a very, very small amount of other soldiers that they may have infected.  And that's how we'll keep the spread of the virus down.

STAFF:  We'll go to Idrees, please.

Q:  Sure, thank you.

One of the interesting things that's come out of the Theodore Roosevelt carrier was the number of asymptomatic people who tested positive.  And so I was wondering if the Army -- do you have a sense of what percentage of the soldiers infected by this may be asymptomatic?  And what measures are -- are you taking to address the asymptomatic cases within the ranks?

SEC. MCCARTHY:  Did you want to take that?

GEN. MCCONVILLE:  Yeah, I could take that.

(CROSSTALK)

GEN. MCCONVILLE:  You asked about Fort Jackson.  The young men and women coming into Fort Jackson are mostly very young.  They're in that 19-to-24 category.  And even those who we tested after we had one or two positive cases, the ones we found out were mostly asymptomatic, so they weren't showing symptoms.

And so that's why the testing becomes very, very important, especially with the younger populations so we know where they're at.

And, Scott, you want to add anything to that?

LT. GEN. DINGLE:  The only thing that I would add is that even a post, with the knowledge that asymptomatic, has been shown to still shed.  We are still following the CDC protocols afterward, and not just putting them into populations, but ensuring the distancing, still monitoring as soldiers and people who back into those communities.

STAFF:  Okay, let's go to the room.  Tom.

Q:  I wanted to ask about the deployment.  Do you plan on extending any deployments?  Particularly about Syria and Iraq with the 25th out of Alaska?

And also, you talked about Seattle and the two field hospitals.  They were at the CenturyLink Center, I guess.  Were they ever used at all?  And do you expect them, as some have said, to go to Chicago next?

GEN. MCCONVILLE:  Well, I'll start at the back and work back to the front.

I had a chance to go out and visit the CenturyLink facility there, and we had two field hospitals over there, and they were fully ready to go to mission.  I had a chance to meet the mayor, and also speak to the governor.  And, you know, what we realized was they had that capacity in place.  Really, what every state is doing is they're really, in some ways, preparing for the worst.  So they were prepared for a situation where they wouldn't have the capacity in their hospitals, and so we built that capacity in record time.  It was up in four or five days and ready to go.

And then when they realized that they had flattened the curve in Washington state they decided they no longer needed that capability.  We basically boxed that hospital back up.  They are on what we call prepare to deploy for 48 hours.  And then as we get the next mission assignment, that's where we'll send them.

Q:  So they were never used, really in --.

GEN. MCCONVILLE:  They really were not used, no, no.  No, they were not.

Q:  And as far as extending deployments?

GEN. MCCONVILLE:  We're just taking a look.  The intent is to bring people back on their normal deployment.  And we do not wish to extend anyone unless there are some circumstances that require it.

But the intent is, overall, if you're on a nine-month deployment, you'll complete your deployment, you'll come back, but, it could be some extenuating circumstances where that may not be the case.

SEC. MCCARTHY:  With respect to that specific field hospital, Tom, there still remain, what's about a 48-hour string?

GEN. MCCONVILLE:  48-hour.

SEC. MCCARTHY:  So 48-hour PTDO to deploy to other areas of the country.  But that's a determination ultimately that FEMA would make in a mission assignment to the Department of Defense.

Q:  Secretary Esper said it may be going to Chicago.  Is that what you guys --?

SEC. MCCARTHY:  There's a couple of cities that are expressing the need for support.  So they're looking at that and ultimately, decision?

ARMY G-3 LT. GEN. CHARLES A. FLYNN:  It’s still for planning.

STAFF:  Okay, we'll go to Barbara in the room and then back to the phones.

Q:  I wanted, I'm not sure who to ask.  I wanted to dig down much deeper on testing.  And I had a vaccine question, Mr. Secretary.

First, the vaccine question.  You talked about the down-select.  When will that happen?

And just to make sure I understand, your vaccine research program is still all within the CDC effort?  Or are you independent of them?

SEC. MCCARTHY:  You want to take the specifics on the vaccines?

(CROSSTALK)

GEN. MCCONVILLE:  I want to stay away from that medical question.

SEC. MCCARTHY:  Okay.

(CROSSTALK)

Q: Much deeper on testing, if I might?

(CROSSTALK)

SEC. MCCARTHY:  Yeah, sure.

LT. GEN. DINGLE:  Yes, the vaccine is in conjunction with industry, academia, the whole-of-government approach.

Q:  When do you anticipate the Army down-selecting for human testing?

LT. GEN. DINGLE:  We were shooting for this summer.  However, again, it's still to be determined, but the goal this summer, is what we're looking at.

Q:  And on testing, I'm not sure who to ask so let me just...  So you mentioned 700 tests a day.  Those two systems are going to be at Jackson?

And if you do 700 -- now, how soon, how quickly you can -- do you have the test kits?  And how quickly can you process them and get results?

GEN. MCCONVILLE:  Well, first of all, they have four systems in place right now at Fort Jackson.  Two are called the BioFires.  The BioFires do 24 a day each, so you have 24 a day each.  And they have two of these brand-new GeneX-16s, and they're called 16s because they do 16 an hour.  So if you times 16 by 24 and multiply that by two, you get a little over 700.

And the capability is – so that’s part of it.  So you have the machine that has the capability to actually process the tests, and they can do that right there and fairly quickly.

Then I'll leave this to the surgeon general, is how many assays, is that what you call them?  And why don't you go ahead and talk about that, you can describe that for us and I'll stay out of the medical profession.

Q:  Yes, please, sir.

And before, my other question is, if you could describe at Fort Jackson, the number of test kits, the number of results, how soon you can get to that 700 completed a day.

And the broader picture for testing within the Army, what is your situation on test kits?  How many do you need?  What do you think, medically, the requirements should be, must be for testing numbers of people and results every day, to get to the point where you can say, the Army is relatively medically safe?

LT. GEN. DINGLE:  So right now, the Army, we do have enough test kits.  However, as we test, they're going to have to be replenished.

Now, when I say test kits, there are different components.  You know, you got the test kit, you got the collection kit, you got the extraction kit, and then you got the system itself.

And so the system itself is what we were talking about with the GeneXperts.  The GeneXperts bring that capability, you know, compiled with the BioFires.  As those systems are consolidated, we will test the trainees or anyone who requires a testing at that location.

In conjunction with that, you know, we initially had nine medical centers who had large-capacity testing capability.  However, what we've done is we've expanded that testing to 35 of 37 of our installations that give a capability locally.  Those testing capabilities within the Army, we have the ability to, again, cross level, send it to the other locations, our medical centers, as required as the numbers go up.

In addition to that, if we needed to use the local and the state testing system, we could.  But right now, the Army does have enough testing systems.  However, we will need more as we test.

Q:  So what do you have and what do you think medically you need?

LT. GEN. DINGLE:  Well, the number changes.  I can't give you the number that we have.

And in our model for the requirements, we're still working through daily in conjunction with our G-3/5/7, with our FORSCOM units, as well as our TRADOC units.

STAFF:  Let's go to the phones.  Sylvie, please?  Hello, Sylvie?

Okay, we'll move to Courtney, please?

Q:  Hi.  Thank you.

I'm sorry, I'm totally confused on the testing.  So, you have the capability of doing a little over 700 tests per day at Fort Jackson?  Is that what you're saying?

And then, I don't quite understand and I'm sorry I'm not quite sure who was speaking, I think it might have been the surgeon general, who said that you have testing at 35 of 37 locations.  But those are tests that you have the capability, like the swabs and the liquid and everything, but then you send it out?

I think we're all trying to get a sense of, maybe you can explain how many Army installations right now have the ability to test someone quickly?  If that's possible to give us a rundown of that?

Q:  Thanks, the math is confusing.

GEN. MCCONVILLE:  It’s confusing to -- as far as when we talk about Fort Jackson, what I was talking about is the machines that actually do the tests.

So you have the capability, these machines run the test, but what you need to have is also the test kits that go along with that, and then, you know, I'll defer to the surgeon general, but the reagents that actually go along to do the test.  So that's where you've got to get all those in place.

Ideally, we'd like to test everyone as much as -- you know, the more you can test, the more you're going to feel comfortable with what the status of the force is.

And another test that many are working right now is the test that determines if you have antibodies in your blood and you may have already been exposed.  And that would be helpful to know too, because you know who has already been exposed.

So, Surgeon General, you want to take it from there? 

SEC. MCCARTHY: Walk them through the swab machine, lab validation, how many samples.

LT. GEN. DINGLE:  So when you're talking tests there are various test systems or instruments.  And so what was mentioned, you heard, was the GeneXpert.  There's a GeneXpert-4, a GeneXpert-16.  The GeneXpert-4 allows the capacity of 10 tests in about two and a half hours.  The GeneXpert-16 is the, provides you about 10 tests in about 40 minutes, which equates to the 360 number per day that you heard mentioned earlier.  There are two systems at Fort Jackson, GeneXperts, that gives that 720 number that you heard mentioned.

In addition to that location, they have two smaller systems called BioFires.  The BioFires have the capability of providing in 24 hours 24 tests.  24 tests.  And so when you add those up, that gives you the total capacity at that location.

If a location exceeds or does not have enough testing capability to test at that location, we will then leverage our other Military Treatment Facilities who have a range of systems.  The systems range from the ABI 7500 to the GeneXperts to the BioFires or Hologic Panther Fusions.  There’s various systems, but keeping it simple, each location, the 35 number that I mentioned, we have a testing system, a capability at that location to support that senior commander and that force.

Q:  And can I just make sure when you say that 720 tests per day, that means you get the results, it's not just you can conduct the 720 per day but you can actually get those results back, that 720 per day, right?

LT. GEN. DINGLE:  That's correct.  This is on the spot.  They are not being sent out.  This is within that 24-hour period based on the number of tests.  So result, we get it right there at that location.

Q:  Thank you very much.

STAFF:  Okay, we'll go to Jack for the last question.

Q:  Hey, thanks for doing this.  I'm curious if the Army has a plan to restart the training pipeline full-bore, even without a vaccine, as you're looking forward and what disruptions you've seen to the training pipeline of people coming in?

GEN. MCCONVILLE:  What we're going to do is we'll manage the risk.  We don't have a vaccination right now and we are training soldiers and we are going to continue to train soldiers in a safe environment with very, very strict measures that we talked about, from social distancing to screening to testing.

And, again, we need to make sure that our Army is ready to go to war and we're going to make sure that our soldiers are ready.  We have an obligation to do that so they will continue to train.

STAFF:  And with that, we'll go to --

Q:  any chance of one last medical question really quick?

SEC. MCCARTHY:  Sure, Barbara.

(CROSSTALK)

Q:  So we're seeing an awful lot of data and reporting out there that personnel, people can test negative.  Pardon me, that they can be asymptomatic and yet, as you said in the beginning, shed the virus and then eventually, potentially turn positive and maybe not, but still be very infectious to the people around them, even though they're asymptomatic.

I'm wondering what challenges that understanding of the virus now poses for the military, for the Army, especially because you do live and work in close quarters.

LT. GEN. DINGLE:  Well, again, as we get that information, we are trying to implement those measures because what comes out protocol-wise in response right now, it's been continuing the distancing, the social distancing, but yet there will be a measure of us to also implement a testing capability also on individuals to see if they're still shedding the virus.

That's where earlier, you heard about the serology testing.  The ability to see if the antibodies are in the blood, if you had it, do you have it.  That ability will allow us, again to test more, to consistently test more so that we can identify those individuals.

All developing as we wait for those testing capabilities to be fielded, to be established, via Health and Human Services, CDC, FDA, EUA, then we will implement those.

In the meantime, we must take the mitigation measures to ensure we protect the forces, one by following our current testing capabilities through the diagnostic testing and then continuing to implement our social distancing to mitigation of the curve.

GEN. MCCONVILLE:  Hey, Sergeant Major?  I want to ask the Sergeant Major to come up, he was at Jackson with me yesterday and he's been to Lee, so just give you an idea of what the soldiers and drill sergeants are doing as far as testing.

SERGEANT MAJOR OF THE ARMY MICHAEL GRINSTON:  Yes, sir. I'll cover two very quick points.  Number one, the training at Fort Lee and Fort Jackson is still going extremely well.  I'll use the example, I was a drill sergeant in, I think I went '97-'99, and I did the buddy team live fire and that same buddy team live fire, it has evolved considerably but we still executed to the standard I would have done when I was a drill sergeant and I saw that same buddy team live fire yesterday.  So the training is extremely well done.

There is a tactical dispersion and that same tactical dispersion, especially when you're shooting live rounds, don't make where -- you're not getting close to each other cause you're shooting live rounds.  So the standards of training has been well done and that same training is done at Lee for their AIT and at Fort Jackson.

The second point is as the soldiers go, going back to how we get to the testing at Fort Jacskon, I did get a chance to go to the TMC and see how they do sick call.  So if a soldier's having some symptoms, they would we go to this one area, the drill sergeant drops them off, says, oh, you're feeling sick.  Okay, go to a totally different building.  And then you have someone do the swab, and then that swab goes over to the testing site.  So they have the swabs done right there, then it goes to the GeneX and the BioFires and then gets done and they get the results right there on Jackson.  I saw that at the training base and it's an extremely well done process, all done right there at Fort Jackson.

STAFF:  Okay, go ahead Tom, please.

Q:  I want to wade back into the testing waters again.  General, you said ideally, we tested everyone and then clearly you talked to the experts, listen to the experts, they say you're not going to know the universe of who's tested positive or whatever, until you have widespread testing.

So what is realistic to the Army going down the road, six months, a year down the road?  Will you be able to test everyone?  Because if you want to go back to large-scale training at the NTC and so forth, you're going to have to have huge numbers of tests.

So talk about ramping that testing up over the months.  I mean, what do you expect to be able to do?

GEN. MCCONVILLE:  Well, I think as we look, the capability right now at Jackson, to do about 750 a day, that's -- machines are there that are able to do the testing.  Now it's making sure you have all of the kits that go along with it so you can sustain the 700 to 800 a day.

Q:  But when will you get to the point where we have enough of these machines, maybe at Army installations nationwide and worldwide, and enough testing kits so you can test enough soldiers so you know, you know, where you can send --

GEN. MCCONVILLE:  That’s right, that’s what we’re going to.  I don’t know --

Q:  But do we have a ballpark on when you can reach that point where you feel comfortable testing enough soldiers that you can go back to large-scale training, you can send them overseas and they can come back home --

LT. GEN. FLYNN:  Tom, I would say it's a combination of things, ‘cause it's not just testing, okay?  There's four criteria that we're planning right now to look at each of our installations, commander to commander.  So the first one would be what does the surrounding community, right, look like?  ‘Cause that's going to impact inside of our fence line because we live amongst the people and the population.

The second thing is testing.  The testing rate that surgeon general and the chief and secretary are talking about, really, the local commander has to establish a daily rate he believes is necessary for his population to be able to adequately test and understand the environment.  That's the second thing.

The third one is treatment.  Can we adequately treat on our installations those that are symptomatic or test positive, right?

And then the fourth one would be to monitor, trace, to be able to respond to the three previous conditions, the three previous criteria that I just laid out.

Those four are a baseline of what we're trying to understand at each installation so it informs decisions that the Chief and Secretary make for our large-scale training, PCSing, schooling, opening commissaries, right, all of that.

And that's the model that we're trying to do and I think the country's probably doing the same thing at every one of the cities, as well.  And we're just trying to stay in stride with all of those efforts that are going on.

So, it’s -- just one component of this is testing.  There's a whole other series of variables that we need to look at to make sure we understand the environment that we're going to be living and operating in.

STAFF:  Ladies and gentlemen, that's all of the time we have.  I'll open it up for any closing comments.

SEC. MCCARTHY:  No, I'm good.

GEN. MCCONVILLE:  I'm good, thank you.

SEC. MCCARTHY:  Thanks, everybody.