A Fort Carson brigade will head to California to fight a mock desert war, but first its soldiers must pass coronavirus tests and be sequestered for three days to ensure the 4,000-soldier unit is free of the sometimes deadly virus.

Tests are being administered to hundreds of soldiers a day as the 1st Brigade Combat Team is used to determine how the Pentagon will fight wars amid a pandemic. 

A "handful" of soldiers, in the brigade and supporting units, have tested positive, both as a result of pre-deployment testing and testing based on symptoms. But there has been no substantial spread of the virus thanks to mitigation measures like social-distancing and mask-wearing, said Maj. Gen. Matt McFarlane, who commands Fort Carson an its 4th Infantry Division.

The rapid-turnaround testing, performed at Evans Army Community Hospital on post, means soldiers who test positive are notified the same day. Soldiers with coronavirus are required to turn in a contact-tracing sheet and begin a two-week quarantine, delaying deployment.

Testing for the virus is the next step for soldiers in the post's emergency deployment readiness exercise, which has involved local training since mid-July ahead of a mock war at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif., where troops train ahead of deployments.

Soldiers will start heading to the training area this weekend and are expected to return in September. The brigade had previously expected to deploy overseas this fall, though the location had not been released. Plans are currently uncertain.

The exercise — which involves the deployment of all of the brigade's 4,000 soldiers and 3,500 pieces of equipment to California with little advance notice — is the largest on post since the beginning of the pandemic, McFarlane said. Another 500 personnel from outside of the brigade who've assisted with the moving of equipment.

"It's not only a good test, but the whole installation takes part in helping move large amounts of people and equipment," McFarlane said. "It's a great exercise to help validate our systems, which we strive to do routinely to make sure we're ready if we get the call."

The exercise has served as an appraisal of installation's readiness, "specifically under COVID restrictions in place, to adjust standard operating procedure to make sure we can efficiently and effectively get large groups through as safely as possible to execute a deployment," and that those troops "arrive on the battlefield healthy," he said.

The exercise isn't in response to any particular national or political situation, but the ability to deploy rapidly is a valuable one, McFarlane said. Two units on the post have deployed rapidly in recent months, including the 627th Hospital Center, which this year deployed to Seattle and is now in Texas, supporting medical staff in the fight against COVID-19, and the 4th Combat Aviation Brigade, which underwent mass testing ahead of its deployment to the Middle East.

Soldiers participating in the exercise are taking precautionary measures such as wearing face masks, social distancing when possible, and undergoing screening for symptoms as they enter and depart.

"Part of the exercise was to ensure we adjust to the implementation of COVID protection measures, keeping [troops] spread out, rotating through buildings for medical checks," McFarlane said. 

With California seeing a spike in coronavirus cases, there is some apprehension among the brigade's family members, McFarlane said. But Fort Irwin is a "contained bubble," he assured.

"You can't get in there unless you have a negative test."

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