Navy Eyes New Virus Prevention Strategy: Thousands of Rapid COVID Tests

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Nasal swab COVID-19 test,
Hospitalman Bryce L. Albarracin, left, with Navy Medicine Readiness and Training Unit Norfolk, performs a nasal swab on Master-at-Arms 2nd Class William L. Pittman, with Expeditionary Combat Readiness Center, during COVID-19 testing conducted in Norfolk, Va. (U.S. Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Natalia Murillo)

The Navy is eyeing a plan to administer as many as 16,000 rapid COVID-19 tests per day to asymptomatic workers at 12 major bases in an effort to keep new outbreaks at bay.

According to an active request for information posted on the federal government's contracting website, Naval Air Systems Command wants to hear from businesses that can administer daily tests that yield results in 24 to 48 hours for the purpose of mass screening. It's also looking to obtain a one-hour testing capability for "small, high-risk populations" on the bases.

The goal, according to the document, is to administer COVID tests to between 10% and 50% of the bases' on-site population each week on a voluntary, random basis, averaging 15,990 tests per week.

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"Protecting the workforce from COVID-19 is the priority. To accomplish this, NAVAIR''s intent is to provide a rapid, onsite COVID-19 screening testing for asymptomatic employees for the purpose of establishing infection rates, shaping the workforce, or controlling the work site to prevent the spread of COVID-19," the document states.

The bases that would receive rapid testing capabilities include the following:

  • Joint Base Lakehurst, New Jersey
  • Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Maryland
  • Webster Outlying Field, Maryland
  • NAS Oceana, Virginia
  • Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, North Carolina
  • NAS Jacksonville, Florida
  • Naval Support Activity Orlando, Florida
  • NAS Whidbey Island, Washington
  • NAS Lemoore, California
  • Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake, California
  • NAS Point Mugu, California
  • NAS North Island, California

The largest on-site testing population is at Patuxent River, with 6,174 workers, according to the documents. Of note, that still represents only a fraction of the more than 20,000 troops and civilians employed at Pax River; some may have remote, rather than on-site, work arrangements.

While officials said they would consider either polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, molecular

testing or antigen testing solution, NAVAIR prefers PCR tests, which yield fewer false negatives and are less likely to miss an active infection. Documents indicate testing work would begin at bases as soon as this month, and could continue through the end of the year, although it likely will end sooner.

"Expectation is through the end of July 2021, but may be shorter if we see rapid decrease in cases due to vaccine effectiveness," one response to a question from industry reads. "May be longer if cases do not rapidly decrease as expected in late Spring/early Summer."

This effort furthers a previous Navy initiative rolled out last June, known as sentinel surveillance testing or SST. That effort administered regular COVID-tests to asymptomatic individuals strategically across the fleet to minimize outbreaks and create a "COVID-free bubble" around units about to deploy. A Navy message about SST noted that NAVAIR was among commands with increased transmission risk due to "high-density office personnel."

As workplaces seek to return to in-person conditions, mass rapid testing is an appealing option to help identify and isolate cases of COVID-19 before they can spread. However, the expense can be a hindrance. Some rapid tests carry an out-of-pocket cost of $100 or more. It's not clear how much the Navy is looking to pay to implement its rapid testing plans.

The military has already employed rapid testing in some more limited cases. In November 2020, the Defense Department announced that troops taking Patriot Express flights could expect random on-site rapid COVID tests.

NAVAIR plans to invite bids on its rapid testing proposal this month, and set a mid-February due date for companies to respond.

-- Hope Hodge Seck can be reached at hope.seck@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @HopeSeck.

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