Democrats introduce bill to send coronavirus tests to US troops in Middle East

Democrats introduce bill to send coronavirus tests to US troops in Middle East
© Aaron Schwartz

A pair of lawmakers on Thursday introduced bicameral legislation to send coronavirus testing kits to U.S. troops in the Middle East.

Sen. Tammy BaldwinTammy Suzanne BaldwinSenators introduce bipartisan bill to mandate digital apps disclose country of origin Keep teachers in the classroom Cher raised million for Biden campaign at LGBTQ-themed fundraiser MORE and Rep. Mark PocanMark William PocanOvernight Defense: Nearly 500 former national security officials formally back Biden | 40 groups call on House panel to investigate Pentagon's use of coronavirus funds 40 groups call on House panel to investigate Pentagon's use of coronavirus funds Overnight Defense: Pentagon redirects pandemic funding to defense contractors | US planning for full Afghanistan withdrawal by May | Anti-Trump GOP group puts ads in military papers MORE, both Wisconsin Democrats, introduced the bill after the Pentagon said testing for troops in Afghanistan is being completed at labs in Germany.

“It is unacceptable that testing kits aren’t immediately and readily available for service members in the Middle East where there are confirmed cases of COVID-19 and this legislation will fix that,” Baldwin said in a statement. “We owe it to our men and women in uniform to protect their health while they are working to protect our national security.”

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The bill would require coronavirus tests be made available to troops in the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility within seven days after it is signed into law.

Pentagon officials have pushed back on the characterization that troops in Afghanistan do not have access to testing.

While the equipment to analyze coronavirus tests is not in Afghanistan, they have said, troops can be swabbed in the country. The samples are then sent to a U.S. military lab in Germany or to other certified civilian testing facilities.

Baldwin and Pocan raised concerns earlier about a lack of testing for troops in Afghanistan after being contacted by Wisconsin military families, sending letters last week to Pentagon officials like Defense Secretary Mark EsperMark EsperOvernight Defense: Senate passes stopgap spending bill hours before shutdown deadline | Brief military mentions in chaotic first Trump, Biden debate | Lawmakers grills Pentagon officials over Germany drawdown Lawmakers grill Pentagon over Trump's Germany drawdown Overnight Defense: Government funding bill butts up against deadline | Pentagon reports eighth military COVID-19 death | Trump, Pentagon collide over anti-diversity training push MORE.

In a statement Thursday, Pocan said he is “increasingly less confident” the Pentagon is prioritizing service members’ health, adding that he and Baldwin “cannot wait for Pentagon inaction any longer.”

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“In the midst of a global pandemic, no one should be left to fight this virus on their own—especially not our military personnel serving overseas,” Pocan said. “When troops abroad are suffering from coronavirus-like symptoms, they should be tested, not ignored. The lack of responses and answers we have received from the Department of Defense and Secretary Esper on their preparedness has been disappointing to say the least.”

The top U.S. general in Afghanistan said Thursday that 21 members of the international coalition are experiencing flu-like symptoms and are in isolation.

Gen. Scott Miller also said 1,500 multinational troops, civilians and contractors who arrived in Afghanistan in the past week are in quarantine but stressed that the step was taken “out of an abundance of caution, not because they are sick.”

While the U.S.-led mission in Afghanistan establishes pre-deployment screening protocols, Miller said, troops will not be moved into Afghanistan. That also means some troops may not be able to leave Afghanistan, he added.