Hundreds of Asymptomatic Airmen to Be Tested in COVID-19 'Surveillance' Study

The Air Force plans to test hundreds of active-duty volunteers for COVID-19 to see if identifying infected, asymptomatic individuals can help prevent outbreaks of the debilitating and sometimes fatal disease.
The service plans to test a new mouth swab kit starting this month, made by a California startup at four Air Force Materiel Command facilities. The aim of this "surveillance study" is "to test people with no symptoms for COVID-19 to determine if additional public health measures are required in work areas," a press release said.
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The study follows a collaboration between the San Dimas-based company Curative, Inc. and the Air Force's 711th Human Performance Wing. These efforts included testing symptom-free patients in civilian locations and were due to end on October 10, according to a Defense Department spokeswoman.
Curative's COVID-19 saliva tests have been approved for research and use under an emergency clearance from the Food and Drug Administration.
The Air Force surveillance tests will involve 100 active volunteers at each of four locations: Edwards Air Force Base, California; Eglin Air Force Base, Florida; Hanscom Air Force Base, Massachusetts; and Hill Air Force Base, Utah.
Over a two-month period, the tests will be conducted in two-week increments, starting with healthcare workers, followed by residents of the dormitory, staff from the base wing, and staff from the installation.
The researchers organize groups of four to six people to create an aggregated sample that is given a single identification number before sending it to a laboratory for testing. The results are not entered in a volunteer's health record because the research is not ordered through the medical system and individual test results are not determined.
If an aggregate result is positive, public health officials can provide guidance to the unit, which, according to Air Force officials, may include self-isolation for members of the unit, on-site inspections, and disinfection of work areas.
Far less invasive than the adenoid-tickling nasopharyngeal COVID-19 swab tests, the tests are self-performed: Patients are asked to cough three times, wipe their mouth, drop the swabs into a container, seal it, and give it to a laboratory for processing.
According to the company, the method protects health workers, reduces the need for frequent changes to personal protective equipment, and frees up vendors and support staff.
A small study by researchers at Yale University of 70 patients hospitalized for the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus found that nasal swab tests were as effective, if not more effective, than the nasopharyngeal swab tests. In a follow-up study by the same scientists, 495 asymptomatic health care workers were tested with the mouth swabs and found that 13 had detectable levels of the coronavirus RNA. Seven of the 13 patients had tested negative that day with a nasopharyngeal swab specimen.
"This is an important skill that will strengthen the ability of our medical professionals to detect, isolate, and combat the spread of COVID-19 across the military," said Maj. Gen. Lee Payne, director of COVID-19 laboratory testing for DOD Power. "The ability to reliably test service members and their families is critical to the health and health of our armed forces."
The Pentagon awarded Curative a $ 42 million contract in July to provide 250,000 mouth swab kits for military treatment facilities, as well as associated laboratory and administrative support funded by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) law.
More than 7,800 active employees have already received the test at the Langley-Eustis Joint Base. It's also being used at 10 other Air Force facilities to test symptomatic patients, and Navy officials say they will be rolling it out at 27 medical facilities to test sick patients.
The Defense Health Agency is developing a list of locations where the COVID-19 saliva tests will be offered. The Army has no plans to use the test, Pentagon officials said.
As of Friday, a total of 70,527 Department of Defense members - military personnel, dependents, civilian employees and contractors - have tested positive for COVID-19 since the pandemic began.
Nearly 50,000 members of the service, including 18,213 soldiers, 10,688 seamen, 7,528 Airmen, 6,027 Marines and 5,663 members of the National Guard, have been diagnosed. Eight troops died.
In the United States, cases have increased an average of 15% over the past two weeks to around 44,000 new cases per day, while deaths fell 5% over the same period, according to the New York Times.
More than 7.8 million Americans have contracted the virus and nearly 215,000 have died.
- Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Monster.com. Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.
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