CNO: Most U.S. Navy Ships Have Experienced COVID-19

uss kidd
Crewmembers aboard USS Kidd making masks during an outbreak on board, April 2020 (USN)

Published Oct 11, 2020 9:42 PM by The Maritime Executive

"More than 190" U.S. Navy ships have experienced at least one case of COVID-19 on board since the start of the pandemic, according to a memo recently released by Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday. However, the Navy appears to have succeeded in limiting serious outbreaks: only two vessels have experienced significant challenges (USS Theodore Roosevelt and USS Kidd), according to the service. 

The challenge for the Navy is comparable to that for civilian vessel operators. At shoreside facilities, the rate of infection among sailors is not significantly different than the rate in the nearby populace, and about 35 percent of positive cases display no symptoms.

The Navy has controlled spread by taking stringent precautions. These include a 14-day "restriction of movement sequester" for oncoming crewmembers and ship riders, with a test before quarantine and a test after; "aggressive" sanitation; social distancing under way; and - when an outbreak occurs - contact tracing and isolation.

Shipboard cases have been connected back to instances in which individuals or commands departed from this guidance. Three units experienced COVID-19 outbreaks after a command-sponsored dinner at a public restaurant; at least one unit had an outbreak after ending a sequester period before getting back test results; and several units contracted COVID-19 cases after mixing an oncoming, sequestered crew with the ship's existing caretaker crew too soon. Completing the full sequester procedure appears to prevent the virus from coming aboard. "When the [oncoming] crew remained sequestered for the full 14 days and were not mixed together until negative test results were confirmed, we have achieved 100 percent success in deploying COVID-19 free," Adm. Gilday wrote. 

As most Navy ships have experienced at least one case, the guidelines call on commanders to remain vigilant even after the sequester period is over and the vessel is under way. The standing order is to "assume COVID-19 is on board" and plan accordingly. Crewmembers must use facial coverings, minimize time spent within six feet of each other and avoid unnecessary close contact. Commanders are instructed to keep sailors separated by cohort where possible to limit spread, and to restrict the use of common spaces like gyms and "smoke pits." In the close quarters of berthing compartments, sailors are instructed to sleep alternating head to foot in order to maximize distance.

When outbreaks have occurred, these measures appear to have reduced the rate of spread. "In the majority of [shipboard] cases, aggressive early action to isolate, quarantine, contact trace, and continue strict health protection mitigation measures has contained the incidence rate on board to well less than five percent, allowing those ships to 'fight through' and remain on mission," wrote Adm. Gilday. 

The Navy has introduced these stringent control measures in order to avoid a repeat of the outbreak aboard the carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt, which was sidelined for weeks this spring. After a scheduled call at Danang in early March, several crewmembers tested positive for COVID-19, and Roosevelt called at Guam for assistance. Most of her crew disembarked and entered an extended quarantine period while the ship was disinfected. Ultimately, more than 1,100 members of her crew tested positive for the disease, and Roosevelt did not return to full operational status until June.