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How MacDill Is Protecting Military Personnel During The Coronavirus Pandemic

Airmen from the 62nd Operations Support Squadron’s aircrew flight equipment (AFE) section at Joint Base Lewis-McChord producing cloth face masks.
The Florida Channel
Airmen from the 62nd Operations Support Squadron’s aircrew flight equipment (AFE) section at Joint Base Lewis-McChord producing cloth face masks.";

Health officials say the most important way to fight the coronavirus is by keeping our distance from others.

But the U.S. military is made up of tight groups, like the crew of a refueling plane or a submarine. To stay operational during the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s had to make some changes.

Robin Sussingham spoke to U.S. Air Force Col. Scott J. Calder, CENTCOM’s Command Surgeon. CENTCOM is based at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa.

Robin Sussingham: During this coronavirus pandemic, soldiers train, they live, they work in close conditions on airplanes and units and ships, etc. What accommodations have been made to keep military members safe from the virus?

Col. Scott Calder: The commanders down range have definitely taken some measures to help minimize that spread, because the concern is certainly valid.

They've closed all the gyms, they've halted all the social events which would gather large groups of people together. The dining facilities are now takeout, instead of sitting shoulder-to-shoulder-to-shoulder with your friends.

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No groups larger than 10 are allowed, even for official functions unless the mission just absolutely requires it. They're like most of us -- they're using technology to conduct meetings rather than having face-to-face meetings.

And then recently, if people have to be within six feet of each other and if the mission allows it, then they'll wear a cloth face mask, just like the CDC is recommending, to minimize the spread.

The other thing I need to point out is that our population is a fairly compliant one. And so when we tell people to do this, they actually do it, which sometimes can be a challenge with the civilians of the world.

RS: What's it been like getting supplies? We hear that it's hard to get masks and protective gear and ventilators and things like that -- has it been a bit easier for the military to get their hands on these things?

SC: We definitely maintain stockpiles in case of this type of event, but like the United States itself, we do have some locations who don't have all of the supplies that they would absolutely love to have. But all locations have a fair amount and are all of them are able to take care of any initial wave of patients before they'd be transferred to a higher level of care, or a resupply would come in.

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RS: You talked about things like the dining halls and the gyms and other things on base, but what about out in the field? What about in a refueling plane or a cargo plane or just people training in close quarters?

SC: As the mission allows, everyone within six feet of each other should be wearing some sort of a mask or a cloth face covering to minimize the spread of the virus. Also, they are trying to minimize how many people have to be together at any one time.

The other thing they're doing is, for instance, in aircrew. They can make it so that the crew stays together at all times. And then those four or five or six people, whatever it happens to be for that aircraft, are trying to stay only with themselves so that they aren't exposed to other people around them, and they aren't mixing the crews.

And that wouldn't just be aircrew, it could really be any mission. If you stay within your own small population, then if something does happen, only your small population is affected.

RS: From your career perspective, how does this pandemic rank in the things you've encountered?

SC: Clearly this is one of the one of the most significant events in my 28-year career. And it is a challenge, not because we don't have amazing resources that are available to us when we need them, but because of that unknown that a new disease brings. And the worldwide nature of this as well. So this is in the top couple for sure.

I would just say that CENTCOM is well prepared for the eventuality of a COVID outbreak within the deployed environment. And I have every faith that our system will take good care of all of those patients that come to us.

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Robin is Senior Editor at WUSF, spearheading the station's podcasting initiatives and helping to guide the vision for special reporting projects and creative storytelling. She hosts the weekly current affairs program, Florida Matters, on WUSF and also created The Zest, the station's podcast that's all about food, which she continues to host and serve as senior producer.