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DHA leaders bring expertise to DoD COVID-19 Lab Testing Task Force

Image of Gen. Payne speaking with a soldier Air Force Maj. Gen. Lee Payne, Defense Health Agency's (DHA) assistant director for Combat Support and Military Health System, talks with Marine Corps Capt. Martin Harris at Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego Oct. 2, 2019. Payne is among the Defense Health Agency leaders appointed to run the effort due to their expertise in areas like combat support, public health, and research and development. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Jake Greenberg)

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The COVID-19 pandemic brought many changes to the Department of Defense. New safety procedures changed how offices and military treatment facilities complete their day-to-day activities. Multiple government laboratories are working together to find a vaccine. But, until a vaccine is found and treatments for COVID-19 are developed, operations within DoD continue to be affected.

Testing has emerged as a vital step in managing COVID-related risks to normal operations. DoD recently created the COVID-19 Lab Testing Task Force to address screening, surveillance, and diagnostic testing of DoD personnel. The undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness appointed Defense Health Agency leaders to run the effort due to their expertise in areas like combat support, public health, and research and development. The new roles enhance the Military Health System and the DoD’s contributions to the COVID-19 response.

Air Force Maj. Gen. (Dr.) Lee Payne, DHA’s assistant director for Combat Support, was selected as DoD’s COVID-19 Lab Testing Task Force lead. Payne works to standardize testing protocols and identify logistics requirements for testing. This role includes prioritizing where testing supplies, equipment, and staff are assigned as the COVID-19 response continues. He also coordinates with other government entities like the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in support of the interagency response. 

Image of Gen. Payne talking to Capt. Martin Harris
Sharing insight and information... Maj. Gen. Lee E. Payne, assistant director for Combat Support Agency, Defense Health Agency converses with Mr. Ronald Krogh, chief of staff, Regional Health Command - Pacific during Payne's visit to Naval Hospital Bremerton Dec. 10, 2019. Payne is among the Defense Health Agency leaders appointed to run the effort due to their expertise in areas like combat support, public health, and research and development. (Official Navy photo by Douglas H Stutz, Naval Hospital Bremerton Public Affairs)

“Operational testing is part of a risk reduction strategy and part of our public health approach,” Payne said on the importance of this task force. “What we will learn from that screening, along with new science and research, will be a big player in all of this, and we are continually learning about this virus to better protect the force.”

While testing does not eliminate risk, Payne’s team members leverage their different backgrounds to facilitate the means to reduce that risk across DoD. There are four lines of effort that fall under the task force: policy, operations, data, and future operations. Army Col. Mark Ireland supports Payne as the deputy lead of the testing task force and program manager for the policy line of effort. Ireland previously worked as chief of DHA’s Public Health division. The job provided Ireland with expertise in disease prevention and medical infrastructure. DHA’s chief of management science Richard Wolf also supports the task force as the program manager for data.

While Payne’s team provides logistical oversight, Dr. Sean Biggerstaff serves as the lead of all COVID-19 medical testing research. Biggerstaff functioned as DHA’s acting deputy assistant director for Research and Development, resulting in extensive knowledge of DoD’s researching capabilities.

“The DHA remains fully committed to supporting the Military Health System and the Department in the COVID-19 response, leveraging the full range of the DHA’s military medical leadership, expertise, and capabilities to deliver on the Secretary’s priorities to protect our people, maintain readiness, and support the national response. The DHA is bringing all it has to bear to contribute during this unprecedented time,” said Army Lt. Gen. (Dr.) Ronald Place, DHA director.

The COVID-19 Lab Testing Task Force has already begun work to bring higher testing capabilities to the MHS. As of May 9, DoD has completed over 65,000 COVID-19 tests for active duty service members and other TRICARE beneficiaries. The task force hopes to raise that number to approximately 200,000 tests a month, prioritizing where those tests need to go with their new COVID-19 testing framework. The framework will use a tiered approach to prioritize testing, continuing focus on testing those who present with COVID-19 symptoms, starting with the organizations and units that need immediate attention. Those populations include operational forces preparing for deployment, new accessions, and individuals who come to military treatment facilities with COVID-19 symptoms.

“We’re working to increase the amount of testing we are capable of doing in the DoD, and carefully monitoring new tests are they are approved,” Payne said. “The combined efforts throughout the DoD will be the key to mitigating the risk to the force.”

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