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U.S. Military Aims To Speed Up Slow Coronavirus Test Rate

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Just over a month ago, we put a question about the pandemic to Defense Secretary Mark Esper.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

INSKEEP: Do you believe that the Defense Department was on this early enough to ensure that this will not be catastrophic, at least within your area of responsibility?

MARK ESPER: I do. We're doing a lot of good work. I'm very proud of our uniformed personnel and our DOD civilians.

INSKEEP: The military's response is still unfolding. An outbreak on an aircraft carrier drew widespread attention. A broader question is whether the military has built enough testing capacity. The top military officer wants 60,000 tests per day for the military by the end of May, though testing rates now are less than one-quarter of that. Democratic Congressman Adam Smith is on the line. He's chair of the House Armed Services Committee and is at home in Washington state. Welcome back to the program.

ADAM SMITH: Well, thank you. I appreciate the chance.

INSKEEP: Do you see the military on a path to contain the outbreak - in its ranks, anyway?

SMITH: Well, sort of two parts to this - one is what are they doing to protect their own personnel? And there, I think they're doing a reasonably good job. I mean, they have the enormous advantage that they have a younger, healthier population. And, as we know, the virus tends, you know, tends to target less healthy, older people. That gives them advantage. You know, we've seen the outbreak on the Roosevelt that got out of control, but there, you know, we've had one sailor die. And I think at this point it's about 20% that has been infected. But I mean, there was a huge challenge here for everybody. I think they're doing OK on that and learning as they go.

The big challenge for me is using the Defense Production Act and DOD's unique talent when it comes to production, distribution and logistics to build what we need to build. And there, I don't think our federal government has done what it needs to do, initially on PPE and now on the critical shortages that exist in the supplies we need to get to that testing regime that just about everybody says we need. We've got to build more stuff, and we've not responded, I think, as a federal government, fast enough to meet that responsibility.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about what that stuff is. Personal protective equipment you alluded to there, and, of course, there's test kits. There are ventilators, which have been in short supply in some places. But it's interesting - when we asked Secretary Esper a few weeks ago about that, about, you know, mobilizing defense industries in particular, he said, that's not really - that's not really our job. It's not really that kind of industry. This is a presidential authority that he would use on other kinds of industries but not necessarily something the Defense Department would concern itself with.

SMITH: Yeah. Mark and I have had that conversation a number of times. And I - well, I disagree with him in the following sense. As an initial matter, yes, this is supposed to be FEMA and HHS that are taking the lead. But just like with the field hospitals that got built, which were done largely by the Army Corps of Engineers, DHS and FEMA made the request. And DOD took the lead because they had the capability. And that is my very strong belief is that the Defense Department - the Defense Department does, like, $300 billion in procurement a year. Nobody in the federal government comes close. They are the ones with the skill set to tell manufacturers, we need 10 million swabs. We're going to figure out a way to make you build them. We need a million test kits - same thing. So I think the DOD, both in terms of logistics and production, should be much better used by the federal government...

INSKEEP: Well, let me...

SMITH: ...To get us to the testing capacity we need.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about testing capacity for the military before I let you go because we just heard that they're at about a quarter of the level that they want to be by the end of May. They want 60,000 tests per day just for the military. What's holding that up?

SMITH: Well, the same thing. And that was a big part of the argument I had with the secretary was, OK, you know, forget about the country for the moment. The DOD's got 2 million employees, countless contractors that they depend on. Build the testing capacity for them. And I think the fact that they're not there even in that critical piece shows you the lack of capacity that we all need to get building.

INSKEEP: Congressman, it's always a pleasure talking with you. Look forward to the next time.

SMITH: Well, thanks, Steve. I appreciate the chance.

INSKEEP: Adam Smith is the Democratic chair of the House Armed Services Committee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.