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South Korea Prepares Airlift for Sailors Infected with COVID-19

south Korean destroyer COVID-19 airlift
South Korean destroyer on exercises in 2019 (South Korean Navy)

Published Jul 16, 2021 2:45 PM by The Maritime Executive

South Korea is preparing a lift to bring home 300 officers and sailors from one of the country’s destroyers after an outbreak of COVID-19 was discovered aboard the warship. The destroyer Munmu the Great was nearing the end of a six-month anti-piracy mission in the Middle East when the cluster of the virus began to spread aboard the vessel.

The outbreak aboard the destroyed reportedly was discovered after a port call in an unspecified country in the Middle East. A spokesperson for South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff reported that one of the officers aboard the vessel became sick and was sent to a hospital for treatment. The officer is reportedly improving, but after that the vessel conducted testing. Six individuals, who were all reported to be close contacts of the officer, tested positive for the virus on July 13 and now officials are reporting that approximately 80 individual of the 300 people aboard are showing symptoms. Most of the sailors are reported to have mild symptoms, but five require additional medical treatment. 

Yesterday, July 15, the ministry indicated that a medical team and supplies had been sent to the vessel. President Moon Jae-in however also ordered the mobilization of the country’s aerial tankers saying that they needed to be prepared to bring home the infected sailors if they could not receive the necessary treatment for the virus.

The spokesperson from the military today said that the were now preparing to airlift home the entire crew from the destroyed. While they have isolated the personnel that are showing symptoms and are taking public health precautions including social distancing, they noted that a destroyer is close quarters for the crew for months during the deployment.

The decision to undertake the airlift was reached because steaming time for the vessel back to South Korea is approximately 25 days. The current plan calls for two of the country’s KC-330 military air tankers to fly to the region and bring the entire crew home to South Korea. The military is asking for the cooperation of other nations as it flies through their air space and they did not announce which country would support the mission to transfer the sailors from the destroyer to the planes. A team will also be sent to sanitize the vessel and the navy is considering sending a captain and the minimum number of sailors required to bring the vessel back to South Korea.

The 4,400-ton vessel departed in February 2021 to take up station in the Gulf of Aden as part of an ongoing mission by South Korea since 2009 to support the anti-piracy efforts in the region. When the current mission began, vaccinations were not available for the crew, but they underwent two rounds of COVID-19 testing and isolation before departing. A few of the crew members reportedly were able to be vaccinated overseas starting in May, but the majority remain unvaccinated.

The military also sent a message to the families of the sailors assuring them that actions were being taken to protect the crew’s health and safety.