U.S. 7th Fleet Embarks Lab Teams for Underway COVID-19 Testing

Lt. Cmdr. Danett Bishop tests respiratory samples in the biological safety lab of amphibious assault ship USS America (LHA 6).

Published Mar 23, 2020 3:36 PM by The Maritime Executive

The U.S. Navy's 7th Fleet has embarked qualified lab testing personnel on board three vessels in order to monitor for the presence of COVID-19 on ships under way. 

Beginning March 14, these early-testing teams have been on board the amphib USS America, the carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt and the 7th Fleet flagship USS Blue Ridge. They have the ability to batch-test samples from sailors who develop flu-like symptoms in order to quickly determine whether they might have the illness, without waiting for samples to be transported for testing on shore. 

The teams are equipped with two testing capabilities, including the BioFire Film Array and the Step One RT-PCR System. The BioFire Film Array will test for a dozen different respiratory diseases, while the Step One RT-PCR System allow for complex COVID-19 tests at sea, if necessary.

The four-person team aboard USS America was the first to bring COVID-19 testing capability to a U.S. Navy ship. "This is the most advanced laboratory capability that Navy Medicine has placed forward deployed," said Cmdr. Brian Legendre, team lead for the preventative medicine team aboard USS America. 

The batch-test system provides early-warning surveillance for the team to detect a COVID-19 case onboard. Currently, the teams are only authorized to perform surveillance testing and not individual testing. This means that the results cannot be linked to a particular patient for diagnostics. If a batch tests positive, the medical team would isolate sailors whose samples were in the batch and potentially medevac them to a shore facility for testing. To date, no cases of COVID-19 have been diagnosed aboard any U.S. 7th Fleet vessel.

"The team here in 7th Fleet has taken COVID-19 seriously from the beginning and has many public health measures already in place," said Capt. Christine Sears, U.S. 7th Fleet Surgeon. "The FDPMU and NMRC augmentation teams provide additional depth in our ability to combat this virus."

The teams include a variety of specialized Navy Medicine personnel, and may include a microbiologist, medical laboratory technician, preventive medicine officer and preventive medicine technician. The teams aboard the USS America and the USS Blue Ridge are from Navy Environmental Preventative Medicine Unit Six based out of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The team embarked with USS Theodore Roosevelt is assigned to the Naval Medical Research Center based in Silver Spring, Maryland.