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Navy Bets On Isolation To Ward Off COVID As Military Opens Up During Coronavirus

Sailor has his temperature checked before being allowed on board the USS Kidd...

Credit: Defense of Department

Above: Sailor has his temperature checked before being allowed on board the USS Kidd, May 29 ,2020.

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With the most outbreaks among the armed forces, the Navy finds that close quarters make it particularly vulnerable to COVID-19.

Aired: June 9, 2020 | Transcript

While the rest of the country begins to open up, the Navy continues to update its own response to the coronavirus, with policies that lean heavily on isolation.

It was part of the Navy’s lessons after the virus spread quickly and publicly, through the aircraft carrier USS Roosevelt in March.

A sailor from the destroyer USS Kidd was diagnosed on April 23 with COVID-19. It was the second outbreak onboard a Navy ship at sea.

Cmdr. Michael Kaplan and his team was flown to El Salvador, where the Navy destroyer was anchored off the coast.

”So we were there within hours of that first positive test result,” said Kaplab, an allergy and immunology physician at the Navy medical center in Jacksonville, Florida. “They found out the night before we got there that the patient they had sent off the ship had tested positive for COVID. We got the call the next morning and we were there that afternoon.”

By the time they arrived, the ship’s medical team had isolated 20 to 30 sailors who were showing symptoms, he said.

“It was actually kind of a surreal situation,” Kaplan said. “We really didn’t have much time to think about what we were getting into, which is probably a good thing. Not too many people would want to run into a burning building and that’s probably the best analogy.”

Reported by Steve Walsh

Close quarters, especially for an extended period of time, differentiate the Navy from the other services. The Navy has had the most cases of any of the services. Roughly half of its more than 2,000 cases come from outbreaks on board two ships at sea, the Roosevelt and the Kidd.

One of the lessons learned from the outbreak onboard the Roosevelt was the Navy moved quickly to track down everyone who was sick onboard the Kidd.

“That was exactly our plan,” Kaplan said. “Try to test 100% of the crew, as quickly as possible. So we worked 24/7, round the clock, from the moment that we got there until the time we left. And it took us about 3 ½ days to get everybody on board, over 300 people, tested.”

The Pentagon is now loosening coronavirus restrictions, but the Navy remains particularly vulnerable to an outbreak. Keeping the virus away from sailors is a constant challenge. The new Navy buzz-phrase is “creating the bubble.” Sailors are kept isolated and in small groups.

In May, Navy SEALs used the bubble to justify reopening portions of its notoriously grueling basic training, including hell week, which were shut down early in the pandemic while the SEALs reassessed their training.

During SEALs training, at times, cadets are pushed to the brink of collapse, going without sleep for days. They can mimic the symptoms of coronavirus. The Navy decided they can keep sailors crammed together during training because the cadets are isolated from other classes, and the rest of the base, said Capt. Bart Randall, commodore of Naval Special Warfare Center in Coronado.

“Those guys, the bubble is solid,” Randall said. "But we are increasing all the social distancing in our classrooms, in the chow halls. There are some things, we’re not going to change these standards though. We’re not changing the quality of training.”

The Navy is still ramping up testing. It’s been a struggle. The Naval Health Research Center was granted authority to test by the Centers for Disease Control on Feb. 12. The Navy lab in San Diego has a history with the CDC. In 2009, NHRC had discovered the first cases of the last pandemic, swine flu. After being given quick approval to test for the coronavirus, it took another two weeks before hospitals figured out a process for getting samples to the lab, and there were other restrictions, said Dr. Chris Myers, director of infectious diseases at NHRC.

“The case definition was very limiting,” Myers said. “You had to have specific travel to Wuhan China or other limitations or at least contact with someone who met the COVID definition. So meeting that narrow case definition may have been problematic in the beginning.”

With each month, the tests themselves are getting faster. The tests used on the Kidd showed results in 15 minutes. Testing is still the only way to find out if people have the virus, but who don’t show symptoms -- that includes roughly half of the some-90 cases found on the Kidd, said Kaplan, who responded to the initial outbreak.

“A ship is a tough place to have an outbreak,” Kaplan said. “Again we were able to implement a number of steps to try to mitigate the spread. Hopefully, other ships in the future are going to make it part of the standard operating procedure. Such as increasing the frequency of cleaning in common areas.”

The Navy is also keeping vessels at sea to prevent the crew from coming into contact with the virus. While the carrier USS Nimitz was in San Diego, sailors were not allowed off the ship. The entire crew was sequestered in Washington state for nearly a month prior. The ship left San Diego this week, without the usual dockside sendoff. All ports of call are canceled. Even pilots that fly in to deliver supplies will have to be isolated for two weeks to preserve the Navy’s new bubble.

Listen to this story by Steve Walsh.

This story is part of our American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration on in-depth military coverage with funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and The Patriots Connection.

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Steve Walsh
Military Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksI cover military and veterans issues for KPBS and American Homefront, a partnership of public radio stations and NPR. I cover issues ranging from delpoying troops along the California border to efforts to lower suicide rates among veterans.

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