Command Surgeon Col. Matthew Hoefer talks about the different types of COVID-19 testing
Command Surgeon Col. Matthew Hoefer talks about the different types of COVID-19 testing (Photo Credit: Eben Boothby) VIEW ORIGINAL

REDSTONE ARSENAL, Ala. -- With new developments in coronavirus research, comes more miscommunication about the types of testing and who should get tested. As the pandemic continues, Army Materiel Command’s senior health official expounded on the most commonly asked questions across the enterprise.

AMC Command Surgeon Col. Matthew Hoefer said there are several types of COVID-19 tests available to AMC’s military personnel and civilians, and he explained the differences among them.

“The most common tests are antigen and polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests. The antigen test looks at the makeup of proteins (antigens) on the virus and how the virus itself is structured,” said Hoefer. “PCR tests, on the other hand, are considered the ‘gold standard’ and due to its longer result time, has proven to be more accurate than antigen testing.”

Soldiers and civilians that present COVID-19 symptoms are encouraged to take a PCR nasal swab test, said Hoefer.

Antibody testing, while not as widely used, has several benefits. The test, which determines the body’s response to the virus, looks for immunoglobulins that indicate whether you have been sick and developed an immune response. It is also a good indicator of population health, explained Hoefer.

To get a pulse on how many Soldiers within large groups have been infected with COVID-19, Hoefer said the Army has adopted a unique way of testing called pooled testing.

“We can take nasal swabs from 10 different Soldiers and put them all in one sample,” he said. “If the test comes back negative, it means none of those 10 Soldiers have the virus; but if the sample comes back positive, any of those 10 Soldiers can have the virus and each Soldier has to be re-tested individually.”

By conducting pooled testing the Army is saving money on tests. Lack of test kits, he explained, has posed a major challenge in testing capabilities for both military and civilians.

“There are a lot of resources that go into developing tests,” said Hoefer. “From processing them, to making sure we have the right reagents, to having the appropriate plastic swab to conduct the nasal PCR test.”

To save resources, Hoefer explained, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been leaning away from re-testing for three main reasons:

1. Re-testing quickly after you have had the disease could result in a false positive.

2. Re-testing wastes resources that go into developing more efficient tests.

3. Any testing can show a patient positive for the virus one day and negative the next.

“Recent CDC guidance states that if someone tests positive, they can return to the community in 10 days after their first symptoms start and they don’t have a fever,” said Hoefer.

According to Hoefer, primary contacts -- defined as a Soldier or civilian who has come within six feet of an infected person for more than 15 minutes, but is not exhibiting symptoms -- need to quarantine for 14 days. No test is required after the 14 day quarantine period.

The Department of Defense restriction of movement, which has been in effect since March, has affected overseas travel, requiring Soldiers and civilians to quarantine for two weeks prior to engaging in mission responsibilities.

Domestic travel to Continental United States installations is at the discretion of the garrison commander and senior commander at each installation, as well as the local community leadership, he said.

With restriction of movement and physical isolation two primary methods of combatting COVID-19, many Soldiers and civilians are more likely to become lonely and depressed, said Hoefer.

Since the start of the pandemic, the AMC Command Surgeon Office has been communicating to the AMC workforce via email, providing resources such as articles about depression and the effects of self-isolation, as well as links to Military OneSource, said Hoefer.

“Every time we talk to the enterprise, we remind people to check on their teammates,” he said. “Give them a call and see how they are doing.”