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After Helping Fight COVID-19, US Military Plans for Next Pandemic

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U.S. Air Force 2nd Lt. Kaelan Hayes, a clinical nurse assigned to the military medical team deployed to Brockton, Mass., gathers medication as part of the COVID-19 response operations at Signature Healthcare Brockton Hospital, March 15, 2022. 

The United States military deployed about 24,000 troops to help state and local governments across the country fight COVID-19. That mission has ended, at least for now. The Department of Defense is making preparations for the next possible infectious disease spread. And, officials are seeking to learn from the experiences of service members who took part in the COVID-19 mission.
The experiences can help military leaders decide on the number and kinds of troops to deploy in case another pandemic or other world crises or conflicts happen, said General Glen VanHerck. He heads the U.S. Northern Command and is responsible for defense of the homeland.
VanHerck told The Associated Press that his command is rewriting the military’s current pandemic and infectious disease plans. Officials are also planning wargame exercises to test the abilities of U.S. military medical workers.
In this image provided by the U.S. Army, University of Utah Health staff speak with the U.S. Army North personnel in Salt Lake City, Utah, March 2, 2022, during a visit to the University of Utah Hospital.

Of the 24,000 U.S. troops deployed, nearly 6,000 medical workers were sent to assist in hospitals. About 5,000 troops helped give vaccinations.

VanHerck noted that the ways military forces were used in the pandemic “morphed” over time. He said one of the main things the military learned was that the work of small teams proved to be more valuable than mass movements of troops and facilities.

In the early days of the pandemic, the Defense Department sent hospital ships to New York City and Los Angeles. They also set up hospital operations in other states at the request of state leaders. The idea was to use the troops to treat non-COVID-19 patients so that hospitals could center on more serious pandemic cases.

But while images of the military ships were powerful, many beds went unused. Fewer patients needed non-COVID-19 care than expected and hospitals were still overloaded by the pandemic. This led to changes in how military forces were deployed. Troops were sent to hospitals to fill in for overworked employees or to work alongside them in additional treatment areas.
In this image provided by the U.S. Army, U.S. Air Force Tech Sgt. Deundre Bryant, right, a medical administrator, checks up on Tech Sgt. Rony Castaneda-Zamora a medical technician, while supporting the COVID response operations at University of Rochester onFeb.16, 2022.

Lieutenant Colonel Suzanne Cobleigh led an Army team that was deployed to two hospitals in Grand Rapids, Michigan, from December to February. She spoke to Associated Press reporters about one patient the team helped at a Michigan hospital as the Omicron version of COVID-19 was quickly spreading.
The COVID-19 patient was having severe breathing difficulties, but Cobleigh said all patient beds at the hospital were full.
An Army nurse on her team knew of an open space in a temporary treatment area. The nurse quickly went into action, hurrying to get the patient wheeled to the area. During the process, the gurney struck a wall, damaging it a little.
In this image provided by the U.S. Army, U.S. Air Force 1st Lt. Mary Coleman, a nurse assigned to a military medical team, prepares a patient’s medication while supporting the COVID-19 response operations at University of Rochester Medical Center in Rochester, N.Y., March 5, 2022.

When she saw what happened, Cobleigh praised the nurse’s drive to help her patient.
“She’s going to damage the wall on the way there because he’s going to get that bed,” Cobleigh said. “(The patient) is going to get the treatment he needs. That was the mission.”

The last military medical team deployed for the pandemic finished its assignment last week at the University of Utah hospital. But officials say about 200 troops are being held on prepare-to-deploy orders through the end of May in case COVID-19 infections rise again.

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