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Navy conquered COVID-19 on ships, but pandemic has a long tail

Thanks to strenuous coronavirus mitigation efforts on ships and submarines, the Navy has maintained an ambitious tempo of operations

A year ago, the Navy encountered a formidable new adversary that appeared capable of crippling the service’s ability to deploy its fleet.

It wasn’t China or Russia or terrorist organizations, all of which have been at the forefront of military thinking for the past decade. Rather, the adversary was the fast-spreading and deadly COVID-19 pandemic.

But thanks to strenuous efforts to mitigate the impact of the virus on ships and submarines, largely put into place after a shipboard outbreak sidelined an aircraft carrier, the Navy has maintained an ambitious tempo of operations and kept its assets deployed as it saw fit.

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“It’s extremely impressive how few outbreaks we’ve seen on ships, and how the ones that we have had have been pretty quickly addressed,” said Bryan Clark, a retired Navy officer who now heads the Center for Defense Concepts and Technology at the Hudson Institute. “Early on, my concern was how is the Navy going to be able to handle this.”

Those worries were widespread and well founded at the start of the pandemic. At the end of March 2020, just weeks after U.S. residents began isolating and sheltering in place as the virus spread rapidly across the country, three sailors tested positive on board the USS Theodore Roosevelt, one of four aircraft carriers based in the Pacific, which had just left Vietnam.

Despite the immediate removal of the three infected sailors from the Roosevelt, the virus spread among the crew, eventually infecting nearly 25 percent of the ship’s crew of 4,800 and resulting in one sailor’s death. The TR returned to port in Guam, where much of the crew was quarantined in hotel rooms, but soon the captain’s impassioned email pleading for more resources leaked to the press.

In the ensuing tumult, the Navy fired the captain, and the acting Navy secretary resigned after having flown across the world to deliver an erratic speech to the crew. It was a very public black eye for the Navy, and it took a multibillion-dollar asset temporarily out of commission.

But it also served as a wake-up call about the threat posed by the virus, said Virginia Rep. Rob Wittman, the top Republican on the House Armed Services Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee.

“If they didn’t take things seriously, they would essentially be out of the naval deployment business,” said Wittman, recalling his concerns as the virus spread on board the Roosevelt. “To the Navy’s credit, they hunkered down and got it done.”

The challenge faced by the Navy was formidable since warships and submarines, with lots of sailors crammed into small spaces with limited opportunity to isolate, create transmission-friendly environments.

“It’s almost impossible to prevent illnesses from getting around the ship, so we’ve sort of just become habituated to it,” said Clark, who served aboard submarines.

The Navy’s mitigation efforts included quarantining entire crews for two weeks before and after deployment, canceling port calls once underway, and extending deployments.

The Navy quickly imposed mandatory restrictions, like requiring masks and making bars and restaurants off-limits for sailors, with potentially career-ending consequences if rules were broken, Wittman said. It also required personnel to quickly report a positive test result up the chain of command, and it began contact tracing immediately.

After the Roosevelt, Wittman said, the Navy got it right.

“They did a quick 180, and within a month the Navy knew exactly what it needed to do,” he added.

But these measures do come at a cost, Clark noted. Without port calls, ships are not receiving any maintenance while underway, which when combined with longer deployments means the material condition of the fleet is likely to suffer.

“It’s a huge imposition at a time when the Navy is already very stressed” by deployment demands to the Middle East, Asia and elsewhere, Clark said.

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Lingering problems

The pandemic has, however, hampered the Navy’s ability to provide proper training for all of its personnel, said Wittman. While training may not be as much of a priority as keeping ships deployed, neglecting it can still have tragic consequences.

“It wasn’t that long ago we had the McCain and the Fitzgerald where you had casualties due to shortfalls in training,” he said, referring to two Navy destroyers involved in separate collisions in 2017 that resulted in the deaths of 17 sailors.

Extended deployments, with the Navy trying to get as much mileage out of a ship and its crew once it is at sea and presumably clear of the virus, also run the risk of burnout among sailors, said Clark. This could lead to retention problems in the future, particularly if the economy heats up and there is competition for workers with technical backgrounds.

So far, the added burdens placed on sailors have not damaged morale, Clark said. The vaccine, he added, came just in time before the sailors and the fleet began fraying noticeably.

As of Wednesday, Navy medical treatment facilities had administered more than 416,000 doses of the vaccine, including 175,000 to sailors, according to a release from the Navy.

Overall, Navy employees — active duty, civilians and contractors — and family members accounted for 57,391 COVID-19 cases, according to recent Navy figures. Of those cases, 2,396 were active infections. There have been 91 coronavirus-related deaths, including three in the last week.

The Navy’s rate of 1.59 deaths per 1,000 cases is far below the rate of 18.15 deaths per 1,000 cases in the general population of the United States, using data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.

Shipyard woes

Outside of the Navy, domestic shipyards are feeling the effects of the pandemic, with productivity suffering because of COVID-19-related absenteeism and efforts to limit the number of personnel working in close quarters. And that directly affects the sea service.

“With our shipyards and the impact of COVID on the shipyards, it’s going to take longer for the ships to be adequately rehabilitated,” said Sen. Mazie K. Hirono, the Hawaii Democrat who chairs the Senate Armed Services seapower subcommittee.

Moving forward, the Navy will need to address its shipyard efficiency, perhaps by accelerating its Shipyard Infrastructure Optimization Plan and its funding, Wittman and Clark both said, referring to the Navy’s 20-year program to improve and modernize its repair and construction facilities.

Wittman also said he intends to make sure proper attention is paid to training and ensuring that shipbuilding programs, particularly the Virginia-class attack sub and new Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine, stay on track.

“The Navy was solely focused on generating readiness through the pandemic. And, to their credit, they did it,” he said. “They consumed some additional resources, and of course the Congress provided that to them, but now they need to refocus.”

Rachel Oswald contributed to this report.

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