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LATEST UPDATES: Tracking COVID-19 (coronavirus)

Navy, Marines Race To Contain Coronavirus Spread

The parking lot at Naval Base San Diego is mostly full despite orders that no...

Photo by Steve Walsh

Above: The parking lot at Naval Base San Diego is mostly full despite orders that non-essential personnel should work from home, March 23, 2020.

Even as California shelters in place because of the coronavirus, the Navy and Marines are trying to balance social distance with military readiness.

The Navy continues to announce more restrictions for bases around the country to limit the spread of COVID-19. But while parking lots at many businesses in Southern California were deserted, those at Naval Station San Diego were still full the day the hospital ship USNS Mercy departed.

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“We came down here with family, my inlaws, just to see her off,” said Julio Quintona. He was among a handful of family members who were still allowed on the dock to watch their loved ones leave for Los Angeles, where the ship and its crew will back up local hospitals strained by the virus.

The military’s response to the pandemic can seem uneven at times. The Navy has suspended most recreational activities and events. The commissaries are still open, but they are allowing people in a few at a time. Barbershops have shut down.

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Thousands of Marines, however, are continuing to train in Yuma, Arizona, in an annual exercise called Weapons and Tactics Instructor, despite at least one marine at the base there testing positive for the virus.

Marines at Camp Pendleton are also continuing exercises with the Air Wing at nearby Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, even though marines have tested positive at both bases.

Representatives of both bases said the Marines are isolating those who test positive and quarantining everyone they came into close contact with. The bases are following guidelines set out by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Some morning formations were canceled, but others are going ahead even though Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered Californians to stay at home.

“We direct a statewide order for people to stay at home,” said Newsom on March 19 when he made the announcement. “That goes into effect this evening. We are confident that people will do the right thing.”

The Navy and Marines are telling nonessential personnel to work from home, but it’s up to local commanders to determine who is essential, said Admiral Michael Gilday, chief of Naval Operations, during a Pentagon briefing March 24.

“We really do trust the judgment of our commanders, and we’re giving them broad authority to do what they think they need to do to remain on mission and take care of people,” he said.

While the Navy encourages bases to listen to local authorities, naval officials also put out guidance on March 20 from the U.S. Attorney’s Office making it clear that the Navy isn’t required to follow those orders. Nor are federal contractors like General Dynamics NASSCO, which has a ship-building plant in San Diego. The parking lots there remain packed.

In the same Pentagon briefing, Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly acknowledged that not every commander may not be getting the message.

“Everyone is taking this pretty seriously,” he said. “We have heard about some anomalies, and we are trying to address those, but generally speaking, we are leaving those decisions to the commander.”

On March 25 the Pentagon announced that globally, the U.S. military is going to Health Protection Level Charlie, the second-highest level, further curtailing travel.

The situation is rapidly evolving. Fifteen days after the USS Roosevelt left Vietnam, a country that already had a handful of cases, three sailors aboard the San Diego-based aircraft carrier tested positive, becoming the first cases found aboard a Navy ship. Gilday told reporters the Navy hasn’t determined whether the virus came from the port visit or possibly from one of the aircraft that landed on the carrier. On a U.S. Defense Department video of the visit, sailors from the Roosevelt can be seen interacting with Vietnamese locals.

Virtually all port visits have now been suspended for the roughly 100 ships deployed at sea, Gilday said.

The vast majority of those ships don’t have coronavirus test kits. Before the Mercy departed for Los Angeles, Rear Adm. Timothy Weber, commander of Navy Medicine West, was asked why more sailors haven’t been tested.

“Navy medicine, military medicine, says follow CDC guidelines, and CDC guidelines say don’t test everyone,” he said.

The Roosevelt is one of three ships that just received testing kits for the virus. The ship has since pulled into port while all 5,000 sailors aboard are being tested for the coronavirus.

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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