After weeks of no testing, four US troops in Afghanistan have COVID-19

Elizabeth Howe
March 24, 2020 - 1:01 pm
Operation Resolute Support


Four U.S. service members serving in Afghanistan in support of Operation Resolute Support have tested positive for COVID-19 — a week after concerns were raised that troops there weren't being tested despite showing symptoms. 

"We were contacted about a military base, 75 miles from the Iranian border, where a number of military personnel have flu-like symptoms but have tested negative for the flu," Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wis., said in a release on March 12. "The base is only a few miles from a town in Afghanistan with 5 known positive cases for coronavirus."

Service members in Afghanistan might not have coronavirus tests — but they have symptoms

Pocan sent a letter to Secretary of Defense Mark Esper's office the next day requesting information about testing kits in the region. 

"After following up, they are still unable to tell us yes or no answer—does every military base overseas have current access to coronavirus kits?" Pocan's release reads. "The fact that we cannot figure out this basic answer for our troops serving abroad is very concerning. I hope that the military can get us an affirmative answer immediately."

While he did not confirm an unmet need for testing in Afghanistan, Brig. Gen. Paul Friedrichs, joint staff surgeon for the Joint Chiefs of Staff did concede during a Pentagon press briefing last week that Afghanistan lacks the equipment to process the tests. 

“I’m not aware of any lack of tests," Friedrichs said. "I believe there’s been some concern about the fact that the equipment to run the test, that specific machine, is not in Afghanistan and that’s true."

Now that testing in Afghanistan has finally commenced, four service members have tested positive. Considering the delay in testing within the region, it is difficult to determine how many additional service members the four COVID-19 positive individuals may have infected. Thirty-eight more who are exhibiting flu-like symptoms are in isolation.

Operation Resolute Support released a statement explaining that it was "making the necessary adjustments to temporarily pause personnel movement." Some of these adjustments, the release added, “will necessitate some servicemembers remaining beyond their scheduled departure dates."

These measures come just days after the United States began implementing a troop drawback that was negotiated in late February. According to the agreement, the U.S. was to reduce its troop presence in Afghanistan from 13,000 to 8,600 by mid-July. These now-stalled troop movements began on March 10. 

The coronavirus slows troop drawdown in Afghanistan

"Protecting the force is our top priority," Col. Sonny Leggett, spokesman for U.S. Forces Afghanistan tweeted last Thursday.

As of Tuesday morning, the Department of Defense had 321 confirmed cases of COVID-19 including 174 active duty service members — an increase of 47 overnight. 

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