Transcript

Deputy Secretary of Defense, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Provide Update on DOD COVID-19 Efforts

April 22, 2020
David L. Norquist, Deputy Secretary of Defense; Air Force General John E. Hyten, vice chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff

DEPUTY SECRETARY OF DEFENSE DAVID L. NORQUIST:  Good morning.  Thank you all for being here.

My name is David Norquist.  I am the deputy secretary of defense.  I'm joined today by General John Hyten, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to discuss DOD's ongoing support to fighting the COVID pandemic.

I'd like to take a moment before we begin to recognize the over 40,000 Americans that we have lost to this virus, including 25 associated with the Department of Defense.  Their families are in our thoughts and prayers.

I know you've received an extensive update yesterday from General O'Shaughnessy, who is leading our domestic support to civil authorities, on all that DOD is doing to help state and local officials:  building hospitals and providing doctors and nurses.  So today, I'm going to focus on a couple of other topics in my opening remarks and briefly give you an update on two items:  first, how the military plans to operate through the COVID environment; and second, the work we've been doing in support of our nation's long-term recovery, to include strengthening the production capacity of the nation and aiding research on COVID.

For those in the department whose missions are -- and operate like their civilian counterparts, we're doing all the normal things, to include maintaining six feet of distance, washing hands, wearing face coverings, cleaning the workspace and maximizing telework.  We now have an estimated 970,000 active duty and civilian personnel teleworking with great success.

For example, the Defense Finance and Accounting Service operates with 95 percent of its workforce on telework.  Each month, DFAS makes over 5.8 million payments to civilians, active duty, Reserves, National Guard and DOD retirees, but because they previously prepared for and practiced extensive telework, they're sustaining regular operations at full capacity.

For those military individuals operating in environments where you cannot maintain six feet of separation -- to include new recruits entering training, sailors in ships at sea, and others operating in constrained spaces -- we are beginning to implement the following general process, with variations that are unique to each particular circumstance.

The first step is you screen with questionnaires and thermometers to identify the at-risk individuals.

The next is you conduct a quarantine, 14 to 21 days depending on the risk tolerance, to identify those who are infected but are not yet showing it.

Prior to leaving quarantine, we will conduct a swab test and a temperature check to identify individuals who are infected but still do not show it.  These are often referred to as asymptomatic.

As the unit then moves to its mission, we'll keep the group together but limit outside interaction to prevent introduction of infection from outside.  Procedures like face coverings, hand-washing, maintaining clean workspaces and continuing monitoring will all still apply as the unit moves forward.

These interim measures enable us to reduce the risk so we continue to operate until we develop therapeutics and vaccines.  And as we learn more about the virus, we will continue to evolve our approach.

In coordination with civil authorities, we are also working to support our nation's long-term recovery.  We are using the Defense Production Act Title III to boost U.S. manufacturing capacity of critical items.  This includes increasing U.S. production of N95 masks, which will result in 39 million additional masks in the next 90 days and 141 million additional masks over the next six months.

In addition, we're working with vendors to increase swab production from 3 million per month to 20 million per month.  And moving ahead, we're working with vendors to evaluate increasing production of other PPE items as well as the reagents for test kits and active pharmaceutical ingredients.

Second, we have world-class researchers improving our understanding of the virus and working tirelessly with our interagency partners to develop therapeutics and vaccines.  These efforts include:  studying COVID-19 in selected recruits and other populations on a volunteer basis to identify asymptomatic and presymptomatic prevalence of the infection; investing in innovative diagnostic capabilities and new medical countermeasures to detect, prevent and treat COVID-19; collaborating with Health and Human Services on three vaccine candidates and numerous therapeutics in order to accelerate these products for clinical trials.

These efforts will help us answer some of the major outstanding questions, and enable us to better mitigate, treat and ultimately prevent the virus from spreading.

As we continue to do everything we can to support the COVID response, the Department of Defense continues with its regular mission.  Over the next few months, for example, we will conduct wargames and experiments to evaluate different fleet designs and joint warfighting concepts to ensure we are prepared for the challenges of the future and not just for today.

Finally, let me close by thanking those service members who, as we talk, are standing watch around the world to ensure the department remains prepared and ready to protect the American people from those who wish us harm.

With that, I'll turn to the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to say a few words before we take questions.

Vice Chairman?

GENERAL JOHN E. HYTEN:  Thank you, Deputy.

Good morning, everybody.

The U.S. military remains ready and continues to operate around the world, and that includes providing personnel, supplies and support to the public health crisis here at home.

I also want to start by offering condolences to the families of those we have lost to COVID-19.  And our top priority remains the safety and protection of our troops and families from COVID-19, especially our more than 50,000 service members, which includes more than 4,200 doctors, nurses, and medical personnel currently deployed across the United States, working to protect the American people.

The United States military continues to support the whole-of-government response to the COVID-19 pandemic.  Our COVID operations have evolved here in the Pentagon and in our combatant commands.  As you know, it was a very, very intense and active period the first few weeks here in the Pentagon, but now our operations are starting to smooth out and normalize.  We still have more people engaged now than we did before and that still increases every day, but it's similar to any other operation we have going on around the globe, whether it's the Middle East or the Pacific or Europe, wherever.

For example, if we have an operation, one of the priority jobs of the Joint Staff and the secretary of defense is to quickly push forces to a combatant commander.  In other words, the combatant commander will make the request to the secretary of defense, and then we work to get them the forces.  When we lay down the forces, we lay them down where the combatant commander requests.  In this case, FEMA is working together with Northern Command, General O'Shaughnessy, to figure out where the forces go.  And once the forces get there they're now General O'Shaughnessy's forces and he can move them as he needs.  The Pentagon role begins to lessen, which is where we are now, starting to normalize.  General O'Shaughnessy keeps us informed, but we don't have to move the forces for him or to him, for the most part.  If he needs something else he'll come to us and ask and we'll push those forces, but he has significant forces now spread out across the country.  Supporting General O'Shaughnessy and FEMA is still our top priority, but now we're starting to get time to think about what comes next, as well.

So the other piece I want to quickly highlight is to expand what the deputy just talked about in terms of testing.  So we're creating a new framework for COVID testing in the department.  We're moving from a diagnostic focus to a diagnostic plus screening focus.  In other words, that means we have the ability to expand our testing capabilities to wider military populations, prioritizing the highest risk to forces and ensuring our strategic mission assurance.  And as testing supplies become more prevalent over the coming weeks and months we'll continue to apply that testing, along with social distancing, facial coverings, quarantines, the other things the deputy mentioned where necessary, and we'll work our way through tiers.

The secretary of defense recently approved tiers for our forces to prioritize where we apply the testing concept the secretary just described to you.  Tier one:  critical national capabilities like our strategic deterrent, our nuclear deterrent; tier two, engaged fielded forces around the world; tier three, the forward-deployed and redeploying forces; and tier four, the other forces.

So we've already started with tier one, focusing our supplies and efforts on these critical forces like our strategic deterrent, making sure that they're always full-up, always ready to go.  It's important to note that testing by itself, as the secretary described, does not enable us at this time to improve our readiness and availability.  Testing alone does not do that.  However, it is a powerful tool that's helpful when complying with quarantine and the other public health items that can improve our overall force availability.

So we're working with HHS, FEMA, the White House and industry to turn what currently is a testing supply problem into a logistics problem, because when it becomes a logistics problem, that's something we're really good at.

So I want to close by thanking all the servicemen and -women, especially our medical professionals, our Reservists, our Guardsmen, that are deployed in harm's way today.  I want to recognize each and every one of them who are in this fight.  They're bringing extraordinary skills, hoved over the last -- honed over the last two decades in the most challenging scenarios, now to the fight against COVID-19.  The readiness of our military is strong.  We're still capable, we're still ready, no matter what the threat.  No one should doubt the readiness of our military to respond and defend the American people whenever required.

So with that, we're more than happy to take your questions.  Thank you.

STAFF:  Let's go to Bob Burns on the phone.

Q:  Yes -- yes.  Thank -- thank you.

I have a question for either the general or the deputy secretary, or both.  It's regarding President Trump's tweet this morning that he had ordered the Navy to shoot and destroy any Iranian vessel that harasses a U.S. ship at sea.  And my question is whether Pentagon leadership has, in fact, received an order that changes policy or changes procedures for handling encounters with Iranian gunboats.

MR. NORQUIST:  So the president issued an -- an important warning to the Iranians.  What he was emphasizing is all of our ships retain the right of self-defense, and people need to be very careful in their interactions to understand the inherent right of self-defense.

Vice Chairman, did you want to add on that?

GEN. HYTEN:  Well, I'll just say that every capability that we deploy, every ship that deploys into harm's way has the inherent right of self-defense, as the secretary just described.  What that means is if we see a hostile act, if we see hostile intent, we have the right to respond up to and including lethal force, and if it happens in the Gulf, if it happens in any way, we will respond with overwhelming lethal force, if necessary, to defend ourselves, and it's really that simple.  But nobody should doubt that the commanders have the authority right now to respond to any hostile act or hostile intent.

Q:  I have a quick follow-up to that.  So what you seem to be saying is that, of course, this has been existing policy for -- for a long time of self-defense.  So this communication from the president does not, in fact, then, you're saying, represent a change in how you handle this.

MR. NORQUIST:  The president's describing and responding to poor behavior on the behalf of the Iranians, and he is emphasizing and warning to them about the challenges of what they -- they create.  So I think it was a very useful thing that he put out, and I think it's an important thing for other people to understand and take very seriously.

GEN. HYTEN:  So I like that the president warned an adversary.  That's what he's doing.  He's providing a warning.  If you want -- if you want to go down that path, we will come and we will come large, so don't go down that path.  That is what he's saying.  He's saying it in clear, uncertain terms.  We understand that direction, and every commander that's deployed has the ability to execute that.

STAFF:  Barbara?

Q:  But all due respect -- what the president said was that you would take action against the Iranians for, in his words, harassment, which is different than hostile intent.  So I would ask you to address that, because the president did not discuss hostile intent and your right of self-defense.  He discussed harassment.

Also very quickly, General Hyten, I would -- in addition to that I would like to ask you your current assessment.  Do you currently believe that Kim Jong-un is fully in control in North Korea?  What is your assessment of his control of his regime right now?

On testing, when are you going to be able -- you've said there's a testing problem.  When are you going to be able to fully test all three tiers?

But the first thing is, the president said harassment.  He didn't discuss hostile intent, to the best of my knowledge.

MR. NORQUIST:  I think the intent behind his language is clear.  I think when you talk about harassment, you're talking about actions designed to provoke, actions designed to threaten, and I think that the -- the choice of language and what we're using is the terminology in our area, but I think it's a very clear message that the Iranians should understand.

Q:  So that's a difference, then.  You are saying you have -- you now will take lethal action against harassment?

GEN. HYTEN:  So, you know, the way you started your question always strikes me as interesting because every time I hear the words "with all due respect," here it comes right after that.  And so that's the way I look at it.

The President made a clear statement.  I think the Iranians understand that.  I think the American people understand that.  Now we, as the military, have to apply that clear direction from the Commander in Chief into lawful orders that we execute, and we know what that means.  We have no doubt what that means.

Now, if you come across and you're in a safe distance and you're waving, that's one thing.  If you have a gun and you point it at me, that's another thing.  We know exactly what that means.  So if you cross that line, we know what that line is and we will respond.  We don't need any more direction in order to do that.  I think the President's message was crystal clear that we don't need any more actions. 

Now, as you talk about Kim Jong-un I've read the -- the newspaper articles, I still read the news because you never know, I might find something in there.

So when I looked at the news, I was interested, so I can tell you that in the intel, I don't have anything to confirm or deny anything along those lines, so I assume that Kim Jong-un is still in full control of the Korean nuclear forces and the Korean military forces.  I have no reason not to assume that.

And then testing across all of the tiers -- Mr. Secretary, you want to start down that path?

MR. NORQUIST:  The testing on what?

Q:  Do you anticipate -- the General indicated that there are challenges nationwide in having a full testing program.  So I am curious what your current thoughts are on when you will be able to achieve full testing?  I believe General Milley wants 60,000 tests a day within 45 days.  Will -- when will you get to that?

And part of the reason I ask is we now know that a number of sailors aboard the T.R. suddenly tested pos -- were negative, asymptomatic and tested positive at 14 days of isolation, which suggests testing may not be, as you said, the full measure of being able to find a healthy crew.

When do you anticipate you're going to be able to test all of these sailors?

MR. NORQUIST:  So -- so let's -- so actually, let's take a moment on your description cause I think it goes into the approach that we are taking, which is the reason you put somebody into quarantine is the idea that they may have had an exposure to the virus that hasn't developed to the stage that you can catch it on a test.

By putting them in quarantine for 14 days, by the end of the 14 days, if they did in fact have it, it would most likely have developed to the point that either they'd have symptoms or a test would catch them, even if they were asymptomatic.

That's why we designed our approach this way, which is you do the quarantine first, if they are positive, you give it the maximum chance to develop.  Now, one may decide is 14 days enough?  This is one of the things we're just going to learn and evolve with over time, which is we also don't know, by the way, that after 14 days when you test positive, are you still contagious or are we finding remnants of something your body fought off several days earlier?

These are all of the measures that we have to go through.  When I talk about our research, it's to understand how long are you contagious?  If you're asymptomatic, are you contagious and at what periods?  Can you get it a second time?  So those are all of the things.

So the question of we want to move through each of the stages but part of what we're doing is we're finding the approach and the techniques as we go through them.  So I don't have a date where I want to hit X number thousands of tests but I think for the critical ones, we want to get those done right away.

And we have a plan to do all of the highest priority tier ones, if not -- I believe it's this month, right, that we'll get through all of the --

GEN. HYTEN:  We'll get through all of the tier ones this month and then we'll -- I think we'll rapidly get into tier two and tier three.  To get to the entire force, the 1.4 million active duty and the entire Guard and Reserve, is going to take us into the summer, but I think we'll get to the deploying, redeploying forces, the forces engaged, all of the tier one forces next month.

And we're already basically working hard on the next carriers going out, the next submarines going out, the next basic training classes.  We have moved a lot of stuff into place right now.  So we're moving quickly.  It is a supply issue right now, which is causing us not to be able to go down the full spectrum of all of the forces.

So we'll have to -- that's why we came up with the tiered approach.

MR. NORQUIST:  The other thing I'd just highlight is your testing plan depends on when they set sail, right?  So if I have a ship that's in, I'm not testing the crew until I've put them in quarantine right before they set sail and they come out.

So a lot of these events, people deploying and others, at some point in the year that that hits a triggering event it's -- it's not a matter of -- if you just do a blanket test, everyone goes home at the end of the day, the next day they could have picked it up at home.  So you really haven't provided yourself the level of protection.

That's why our procedures are queued on events and on quarantine periods.

Q:  Thank you.

STAFF:  Tom?

Q:  Yeah, I want to hit testing again, General.  Again, General Milley said 60,000 by the end of May, early June.  Do you think that's realistic, can you achieve that?  What do you need to get there?  And then also, what is the daily testing number you expect to get to for the entire force you mentioned by the summer?  Do you have a number on that? 

MR. NORQUIST:  So we certainly can -- confident we can get to the 60,000 end of May, early June.  I think that's what we're going to try and get --

Q:  -- tier one?

MR. NORQUIST:  That will cover the tier one and potentially beyond it.  Again, part of this is --

GEN. HYTEN:  That should get to tier two and tier three.  60,000 a day should get to -- to that entire structure.

MR. NORQUIST:  Or I'm sorry, did you say 60,000 a day.

Q:  60,000 by the end of May, early June.  What will that cover as far as a force?

MR. NORQUIST:  All right, so I'm not sure I'm following the 60,000 a day.  We were looking at --

GEN. HYTEN:  That's what General Milley said the other day, is building up to that capacity.

(CROSSTALK)

MR. NORQUIST:  We need about 50,000 a week, 200,000 a month to hit the core functions.

Q:  Milley said 60,000 per day by the end of May, early June.  That's his aspiration.  So the question is what will it take to get there and then how many of the force would that cover?  I think tier one, right?

MR. NORQUIST:  No, no, you're -- if you did 50,000 a week, you could make it through tier one and start into tier two and tier three.  You get to 60,000 a day, you're able to hit a much broader range of things and -- than our initial planning would -- would prioritize.

So that's a good aspirational goal cause when you get there, you can do a lot more things but what we're looking at to cover, the key tiers, is, you know, 50,000 a week, 200,000 in a month, cause again you're prioritizing when they move, right?  It's when the submarines set sail, it's not just every submarine crew.

So the --

Q:  But that's also recruits, right?

MR. NORQUIST:  So you're looking at recruits.  That also gets to when the services look at expanding their incoming recruit platforms.  So they bring you a certain number, the recruits are at the level they're doing in tier one.

When you start to talk about the rest of the country getting to full activity, then you're bringing more recruits from across the country, you're potentially ramping up your pipeline, than you'd want to grow it.  What this depends on is the work we're doing with the Defense Production Act to drive up the supply of reagents, of kits, of those other things.

In many cases, we're doing that to benefit the rest of the country.  You know, we recognize in all of this that although we have a high priority mission, we aren't the one who is having the people dying, right?  We have people who die but the numbers are much smaller than nursing homes and others.

So when we're helping drive up test kits, those are, in many cases, high priority, want to take care of them first.

Q:  -- number you'd hope to get to?

MR. NORQUIST:  In the near term?  50,000.

Q:  50,000?  Oh --

GEN. HYTEN:  Again and --

Q:  What is the number you hope to get to so you're confident for the entire force?

GEN. HYTEN:  So when we get to the number that General Milley said, we'll be able to cover the entire force.

Now, he said, I want you there by the end of May, early June.  That will be a challenge with our national stockpile, to figure out when we get there.  The -- I'm confident that it will exist in the country.  The question is, how do we prioritize it within the country.

My guess is by the end of May, early June, we'll be into Tier One, Two, and Three, certainly.  Into much of Tier Four, and then there's going to be discussion of, from a national perspective, where is the priority about where do we put those tests?

But right now, like the deputy said, with 50,000 a week, we can cover all the Tier One which, oh, by the way, includes new accessions into our force.

MR. NORQUIST:  And nationally, we have seen the number of tests go up dramatically.  I think it was over 4 million and they're doing 100K-150K a day.  So part of that is the capacity is there, and it's climbing.  Part of what we have to adjudicate is, what part of our testing is a high enough priority to insert into that process and say, hey, we need to be able to test this set?

Q:  I wanted to close the loop, hopefully, on the issue of the presidential tweet.  He did mention harassment.  So what we're talking about in practice is, Iranian fast boats going around Navy ships, correct?  That's what we've been seeing?

GEN. HYTEN:  Right.

Q:  So on that, what they're doing, would that justify lethal action in your mind?

GEN. HYTEN:  So I would have to be the -- the captain of the ship in order to make that determination.  So I'm not going to --

Q:  I’m talking encircling fast boats going by.  On that -- on its own --

GEN. HYTEN:  So I'm not --

Q:  -- is it justified to take lethal action?

GEN. HYTEN:  So it depends on the situation and what the captain sees.  That's a hypothetical question, and I don't want to go down that road.

(CROSSTALK)

Q:  -- hypothetical, because that's precisely what we've been seeing with the Iranians.

GEN. HYTEN:  But what's going on right now is, you can't let a boat -- a fast boat get into a position where they can threaten your ship.  And I think that every captain at sea understands what that is right now, and we have very specific guidance on how we can use lethal force.

I go back to the -- what the president says sends a great message to Iran, that's perfect.  We know how to translate that into our rules of engagement.  We don't talk about rules of engagement in public, but they're based on the inherent right of self to defense, they're based on hostile intent and hostile act.  That's all we need in order to take the right action.

STAFF:  We'll go to Phil Stewart on the phone.

Q:  Thanks.

On Iran, can you please let us know your assessment of their satellite launch?

And what do you think that the -- I mean, getting back to the -- the president's tweet, do you think that this -- this latest episode of harassment of the ships was a break from -- you know, there had been a long lull.  It was a break designed to send a message?  Or was this -- is the assessment of the folks out there that this was just an aberration, you know, some -- some local commanders getting excited?

Thanks.

MR. NORQUIST:  So let me first comment on the space launch.  DOD has and continues to monitor closely Iran's pursuit of viable space-launched technology and how it may relate to its advancement of its ballistic missile program.  And Iran's ballistic missile program remains a regional threat to U.S. interests and those of our allies and partners, and we remain confident in our ability to deter and defend against threat posed by Iran and its proxies.

But we view this as further evidence of Iran's behavior that's threatening in the region.  I think when you look at the behavior of their boats -- that was the second part of your question -- I don't know that I can ascribe full intent to it, but you look at it, it's the same malign behavior that they have practiced in other areas.  And it's very careful.  They understand that there are limits and lines that they should not cross because of the consequences to them.

Vice Chairman, anything to add?

GEN. HYTEN:  So regarding the Iranian space launch, everybody in this room and everybody around the world should know that we watch every rocket and missile that comes off the face of the earth, and we track it and characterize it very precisely.  So we did that with their most recent Iranian launch.

I won't tell you exactly what the intelligence says because that's classified information.  But what I can tell you is it went a very long way.  And if you have a missile that goes a very long way, whether it works or not and puts a satellite in space or not, I won't go into those details.

But it went a very long way, which means it has the ability, once again, to threaten their neighbors, our allies, and we want to make sure that they can never threaten the United States.  So we watch that very carefully.

 But this, like the secretary said, this is just another example of Iranian malign behavior.  And it goes right along with the harassment from the fast boats.  We're trying to create a safe environment for maritime transit in that part of the world.  That's what the -- the force over there is to do.

And the malign behavior of Iran that questions that causes significant risk to the safety and security of that region of the world, and therefore the world as a whole.  So you put those two things together, and it's just more examples of Iranian malign behavior and misbehavior.

Q:  Can I just ask why you won't characterize whether the satellite launch was successful when other launches have been characterized?  And why is this one being treated differently?

GEN. HYTEN:  I'm not treating it differently at all.  It just happened, and it takes a little while to characterize exactly what goes into space.  So once it's characterized and once it's out in public, I'll be glad to sit here and talk about it.

But I'm not going to talk about what happened in the endgame of a rocket that just happened because I've been launching rockets my whole life, there's a lot that has to happen before a satellite becomes operational or whether it even works or not, and it takes a long time to characterize that because it goes around the world.

So it's just early in the process of doing that.  So by this time tomorrow, I imagine if I was standing up in front of you, I could explain exactly what was going on, whether it was successful or not.  I just don't have that information yet.

STAFF:  Meghann?

Q:  Where do troops who are mobilized within the U.S. for pandemic response fall within the testing tiers that you guys are trying to stand up?

MR. NORQUIST:  So if they're mobilized for pandemic response -- so you think of the doctors going in, so much like doctors at any hospital, they're almost in sort of the tier zero, which is, you've got people who have symptoms you have to test, and you've got those that you're supporting in those responses.

So if they start having symptoms, they have exposures, they're part of that.  So they would clearly be in Tier One if they weren't already covered by the normal testing procedures that CDC has put out as their first priority.

GEN. HYTEN: So that's --

MR. NORQUIST:  But they're always a priority for us.

Q:  So you said Tier Two or Tier One?  I think you said Tier Two first, and then Tier One.

(CROSSTALK)

MR. NORQUIST:  They'd be Tier One, but in --

GEN. HYTEN:  Yeah.  But what he said is really important, because they're really Tier Zero.  And it's probably something that's worth -- when I talked about moving from a diagnostic to a diagnostic plus screening, the diagnostic requirement is not in that tier screening approach.  The diagnostic requirement is basically tier zero, and that includes the doctors, the nurses.  And it includes anybody that becomes --

MR. NORQUIST:  Right.

GEN. HYTEN:  -- symptomatic.  If you became symptomatic in the Pentagon or were in close contact with somebody who was symptomatic, you would get a test.  That is a Tier Zero test, that's the diagnostic piece of the puzzle that still continues.  So it's when we go to diagnostic, which is all we've been doing, to diagnostic plus screening, that's where you get to the tiered approach.

Q:  But as far as Guard troops mobilized to -- for testing stations or for logistics and stuff like that, considering they're not home, they're not sheltering in place, and they're having repeated possible exposures, where would they fall on that spectrum?

MR. NORQUIST:  That would depend on where there were symptoms, whether the risk of exposure was such that a doctor felt that they needed to be tested.  So each organization would do that.  But it's similar to any other case, which is, if there's a symptom of it or if there's enough risk of exposure to justify it, that a doctor said you need it, then we get the test.

STAFF:  Go to Tara Copp on the phone.

Q:  Hi, thanks for doing this.

Another testing question.  I was wondering, to what extent are you planning to use -- or deploy antibody tests in the field to see if a particular base or unit, enough of them have had it, gotten over it, have the antibodies?  And how would you -- what sort of assumptions would you use on immunity to where those forces might be protected and could operate, you know, with a little less of the social distancing requirements?  Thank you.

MR. NORQUIST:  So those are great questions because, yes, the answer is we are participating in working with the interagency process on antibody tests.  Many of those require bloodwork, but for those who are following, what that means is you're looking for -- normally when we talk about the swab you're talking about, you know, you put a device in somebody's nose.  You do a swab.  You're looking for signs of a live virus capable of spreading.

With the antibody test, the person doesn't have to have the live virus anymore.  Their body may have already reacted, killed off the virus, and they may be on the other side.  They wouldn't necessarily test positive anymore to the test we're using now.  They would test for the antibody that said they were over it and they had recovered.

So one of the things that we are working with through some of our research organizations is exactly the fielding and use of that to determine a couple questions.  One is how widespread, right?  How many folks do we have out there who actually have had this asymptomatically, recovered, and now have the antibodies?  Can you track people with the antibodies to confirm how long it lasts, how much of an effect did the protection is?  With any virus that we have each year, you know, with the flu and others, one of the questions is if you get over it are you vulnerable to getting it again?

So we have a series of research efforts involving, you know, Walter Reed Army Institute of Research and others, working with HHS and CDC on exactly that question.  Because as you point out, that's one of the key steps and it's a step beyond  the swab test because it looks for something very different, but it's a key part of being able to know how far along we are.

GEN. HYTEN:  So I think the challenge is going to be when you move from the current diagnostic and screening testing that we're doing now with swabs and the various machines that we have, then we're going to want to move into antibody tests.  Then you want to get into a therapeutic environment where you can actually treat the symptoms and make them not so severe, and then you want to get into a vaccine environment.

So we're actually working with the community to walk through each of those.  And beyond the current diagnostic and screening tests, the science is not clear at this moment exactly what we get from an antibody test when we collect that, because we don't know the impact, as the secretary described.  We don't know the impact across the force.  How long does it last?  How much does it protect?  Does it create immunity?  All those things are unknown, and we have to explore those unknowns.  But we do have a significant element of the population where we can collect those antibodies and -- and understand that and learn quickly, and that's what we're trying to do.

MR. NORQUIST:  And one thing I should just make clear to everyone:  when we talk about doing research that involves people in the Department of Defense, we have an institutional review board whose approval we need, just like any medical organization would.  So when we do research, we have that.  And we're involving individuals -- these clinical trials and longitude studies, these are volunteers, right?  So while we have screening we do as part of the mission, when we talk about these types of research projects they are reviewed, validated, and the participants are voluntary.  That's just an important to understand about how we function, just like any medical organization would.

Q:  Just as one follow-up, since you do have a community of cases on the Roosevelt, is there any consideration of using that population for an antibody test to truly see, you know, how far it spread and what sort of immunity there might be?

MR. NORQUIST:  Yes.  Yes, and I think they're -- they are working with -- I believe that's one of the groups they're working with on volunteers to be able to track and look for that information.

And again, part of what it'll tell you is how long it takes after you've been exposed to develop the antibodies.  We can look forward to people participating in these and being able to share what we learn with those research and medical institutions elsewhere in the federal government and the private sector who are doing similar studies.

Q:  So just to clarify, Roosevelt sailors will be participating in this?

MR. NORQUIST:  That's my understanding.  Let me do this, I'm going to get a follow up from the Navy to confirm, so I don't go overstate the level of activity on that side but I believe that's the case, but what we'll do is we'll get a follow up for you to confirm that from the Navy.

Q:  Okay, thank you.

STAFF:  We have time for one last question.  We'll go to Jen Griffin on the phone for Fox.

Q:  Thank you very much.

I have a question about the belief in the military that this is going to return.  And is it your assessment on the task force that when it does return that it will come back more virulent?  How frequent will it return and how are you preparing for that?

And separately, the Army Corps of Engineers is continuing to build out convention centers and -- but the beds are not being used in many of these cities.  Is it still a good idea to be converting all of these convention centers when some place like Florida is already going back to -- going back to sort of normal social interactions?

MR. NORQUIST:  So I think when you look at what happens next with regard to the virus, you have a couple of things.  One is as people begin to return to, I won't say completely normal, but return to businesses and other activities, and you have a potential risk of the virus returning, you want to be assured that you have the capacity that if there was another outbreak, you have the beds, the facilities, the doctors, et cetera, support.  That's part of the buffer that you build because you have time.

So I think that you will see us continue to, with fiscal prudence, about not wanting to overstate it, but to be ready so that if something happens, there is the capacity to handle it.  The question of whether it returns, though, depends on the nature of how the virus evolves.

So we'll have potentially the opportunity for therapeutics, which will reduce the severity.  We may have a number of people whose immunity reduces its ability to transmit.  There is an open question I don't know the answer to, which is how it does in summer versus winter, and the question of whether that causes it.  Certainly people spend more time indoors in winter, which increases the transmission risk.

So that's one of our unknowns about how it returns, it's something we don't want to assume won't happen because we need to be prepared to have the masks and the facilities and the beds to be able to mitigate that risk, but that's one of the things that gives confidence to people in re-opening, is if there is a return in a hotspot in a city, we know how to get it under control, we can move the DOD forces, the medics that were available elsewhere to that location while they get it back under control.

So that's the balance that we, as a nation, are going to have to take going forward.

GEN. HYTEN:  So it's the job of the military to prepare for worst case scenarios.  So we will take the lessons learned that we have from this outbreak, we will plan for something worse to happen in the fall.  We hope that therapeutics and vaccines and all kinds of things come into place that makes sure that doesn't happen but we have to plan for the worst case and assume that we're going to be there.

And then regarding the convention center beds that the Army Corps of Engineers are building, they're building those in response to requests from governors in states.  And, you know, I've been asked "Does it bother you when you look at those convention centers and you see that the beds empty?"

For gosh sakes, no, that's what I want to see.  I don't want to see beds full.  If you see beds full, that means that the local capacity of the local hospitals to handle this have been overwhelmed and now we're into an emergency situation.  We want to make sure we build all capabilities ahead of need, we want to make sure we push supplies forward ahead of need.

You always want to have excess capacity, not too little capacity.  And so it doesn't bother me at all that many of the convention center hospitals that have been built are empty right now.  We have to be ready for the worst case, and we hope it never comes.

So I'm happy when I see empty beds in the Javits Center.  I'll just leave it at that.

Q:  Thank you.

STAFF:  Any closing comments, gentlemen?

MR. NORQUIST:  Well, again, let me just thank you -- everyone both in the room, those on the phone and those watching on TV -- for taking the time.  I appreciate your interest and support for this subject.

Again, the men and women of the armed forces, and particularly those in the medical community who have gone out and moved and deployed to be able to respond, I thank them for their quick and prompt response.

GEN. HYTEN:  Stay healthy, stay well, wear your mask.  Thanks very much, everybody.

MR. NORQUIST:  Thank you, everybody.