U.S. Navy: Even Lab Tests Can't Guarantee a COVID-Free Ship

Sailor disinfecting a berthing area aboard the carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (U.S. Navy file image)

Published May 28, 2020 3:52 PM by The Maritime Executive

The U.S. Navy has issued new fleetwide guidance intended to leave COVID-19 on the pier and maintain a "clean bubble" around the ship. The new requirements prior to deployment include a health screening, a minimum of 14 days in "sequestered status," and adherence to preventative measures like masks and handwashing while underway. Even with these extensive preventive measures, the guidance acknowledges that there is no guarantee that coronavirus has been kept off the ship - not even with lab testing. 

The screening includes an assessment of each sailor's COVID-19 exposure history, a temperature check, a check for COVID-19 signs and symptoms, a review of any past COVID-19 testing, and an evaluation of the individual's risk factors. Every day, sailors will be screened again with a questionnaire and temperature check. 

Shipriders, support personnel and any other outside visitors are also expected to spend 14 days in sequestration before boarding. In the event that an outside visitor must come on board at short notice, commanders are expected to apply case-by-case measures to "safeguard . . . their command’s bubble." Any transfer between two bubbles - for example, two properly-sequestered ships - must be executed with care. 

The Navy noted that testing is the only way to identify asymptomatic cases of COVID-19 - but even lab testing cannot guarantee that coronavirus is not on board, because the gold-standard PCR test misses a percentage of positive cases. This means that after all of the pre-deployment prevention work, each ship still has to assume that COVID could be present and deploy standard public health measures - including social distancing, deep cleaning and face coverings - in order to minimize the potential spread rate. 

In a statement, the Navy said that it expects that these mitigation measures will be in place "in place for a lengthy period," and that they would require buy-in and understanding from all hands. 

“Our forces continue to operate forward every day; the impact of COVID-19 on the global community only heightens the critical role our Navy plays in maintaining security and stability at sea,” said Vice Adm. Phillip Sawyer, Deputy Chief of Naval Operations. “As we learn more about this virus, the Navy will continue to take steps necessary to preserve our operational readiness while protecting the health of our forces.”