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Lessons To Learn From U.S. Military On How To Handle Pandemic

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The nation's top military leaders have begun to end their self-imposed quarantine, which came after possible exposure to the coronavirus in recent meetings. It's another reminder of how seriously the military takes the threat. So far, the Pentagon says there has been just one death from COVID-19 out of 1.3 million active duty troops. WUNC's Jay Price has this look at how the military is fighting COVID.

JAY PRICE, BYLINE: Before dawn, nine lawyers and paralegals from the 82nd Airborne Division's legal staff at Fort Bragg knock out some pushups.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: In cadence.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: In cadence.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Exercise. One, two, three.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: One.

PRICE: They're in black army workout shorts and T-shirts. Because they're outside and able to space widely, none are required to mask up. Staff Sergeant Brian Copeland lays out the training regimen.

BRIAN COPELAND: Yesterday was actually our cardio day. So this week, it's Monday, Wednesday, Friday lift; Tuesday, Thursday cardio and core.

PRICE: It's safe to say few civilian law offices are out before sunrise, pushing concrete and capping off three-mile runs with shuttle sprints. But not only are troops screened for serious health issues and weight before they can even enlist. They have to stay healthy to stay in, even those who work in offices.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: One, two, three.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Two.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: One, two, three.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Three.

PRICE: And they have to adhere to measures to fight the pandemic. In response to the coronavirus, the military has created a kind of public health parallel world.

MICHAEL KURILLA: We do screenings. We do testing. We do restriction of movement.

PRICE: Lieutenant General Michael Kurilla is commander of the Bragg-based 18th Airborne Corps, often called the nation's largest warfighting organization.

KURILLA: We have quarantine facilities, contact tracing, isolation facilities. We have pretty robust contact tracing teams.

PRICE: He has troops spread across more than a dozen installations, including tens of thousands in contingency forces ready to deploy on short notice. And he says keeping them ready to do that is crucial.

KURILLA: I think one of the advantages that we have also is when we put orders out, people follow them, or there are consequences.

PRICE: Consequences that could affect your military career. Kurilla relies on the expertise of a team that includes the base hospital commander and research, pathology, infectious disease and public health experts.

KURILLA: We look at the CDC guidance. We look at the research out there. We've learned a lot about this virus over time, and we adjust it. And so each week we come together and say, what changes do we need to make?

PRICE: Measures to fight COVID are everywhere on Bragg. Only half as many paratroopers are loaded onto each plane for training jumps. Soldiers are grilled about symptoms before entering the more than a dozen gyms on base. Entire units headed to major out-of-state training exercises are tested before leaving. Those test swabs go to Womack Army Medical Center, a major hospital right on base. It's part of the Pentagon's network of more than 50 hospitals and over 400 clinics, and it has two labs that can process COVID tests.

ANNE MARIE STERLING: Our turnaround times are almost all under 24 hours right now...

PRICE: Lt. Col. Anne Marie Sterling is laboratory manager for the hospital.

STERLING: ...Which helps our public health command trace and isolate the sick people and find their close contacts and get them isolated as well.

PRICE: There are about 120 such labs across the military. The ones here process tests from many sources - patients, curbside test sites, troops traveling to their next base. And they get results fast, which means the army can get onto a cluster before it spreads. Near the hospital in another building is how. A team of more than 30 people, like public health nurse Lona Jones, work the phones, contact tracing.

LONA JONES: As far as your household contacts, what we would need is those individuals that live with you - we would also recommend that they are tested, OK? So do you live alone? Or who all live in your household?

BRIAN LEIN: You name it, it's been pushed out to the troops.

PRICE: Getting word out the right way has also been key. Dr. Brian Lein is assistant director of the Defense Health Agency, the Pentagon's health care network. Everyone, he says, has been on message.

LEIN: If you go on to every one of the social media platforms that the Department of Defense is on, you'll see comments from the chairmans (ph) of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the secretary of defense, each one of the service leaderships all the way down to individual unit commanders.

PRICE: And unlike the civilian world, leaders are speaking with one voice. For NPR News, I'm Jay Price at Fort Bragg, N.C. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.