Navy Announces New Rules for Deploying After Ships' COVID-19 Outbreaks

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Sailors aboard the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt inspect an M2HB machine gun.
Sailors aboard the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71) inspect an M2HB machine gun during a general quarters drill. (U.S. Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Conner D. Blake)

Navy units preparing to deploy must follow a host of new guidelines issued Wednesday, as the service hit hardest during the novel coronavirus pandemic tries to prevent future outbreaks at sea. Officials say the guidelines will remain in place for "a lengthy period of time" as the global pandemic continues.

All Navy personnel gearing up for deployments will be sequestered for at least 14 days and will face new medical screenings before getting underway, a new service-wide administrative message announcing the rules states. And once deployed, crew members must also wear face coverings, wash their hands often, and practice social distancing when possible, the message adds.

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Testing for COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, "does not guarantee a clean deploying unit," officials warn, due to the potential for false negative results.

"Commanders must remain alert to the reality that some sailors carrying COVID-19 may be asymptomatic and mitigate risks accordingly," the message states.

The new mitigation measures will be in place "for a lengthy period of time," officials said, as the coronavirus poses continued challenges for Navy personnel and their families.

The Navy has had nearly 2,400 COVID-19 cases in the ranks, the most among the services. More than 1,100 of those cases were on the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt, which was sidelined for weeks in Guam as the crew was evacuated and the ship disinfected.

Many of the Roosevelt crew members who tested positive for COVID-19 showed no symptoms, officials have said. One member of that crew, Chief Petty Officer Charles Robert Thacker Jr., died from the illness.

The message details some of the challenges the Navy faces in preventing coronavirus spread on ships, where crew members work in tight spaces, share common spaces and sleep in tight quarters.

"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," said Vice Adm. Phillip Sawyer, the operations chief in charge of coordinating the Navy's coronavirus response

The new rules are the minimum guidelines commanders must set and crew members must follow to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. Pre-deployment screening will include temperature and symptom checks, along with reviews of any past COVID-19 testing or risk factors.

"Personal responsibility and disciplined organizational public health protection measures are the bedrock of risk reduction and risk mitigation," Navy Surgeon General Rear Adm. Bruce Gillingham said.

The guidance also applies to all ship riders, support personnel and anyone else "penetrating an established clean bubble," as the Navy puts it. These personnel must also be sequestered for 14 days before embarking on the ship.

Commanders will have to assess the risks and take safeguards to protect the crew if a short-notice visit to a ship is needed, the message states. Navy officials have said it's possible aircrews have introduced the virus onto ships, leading to new protocols to prevent possible spread.

The new guidance also includes instruction for how units should isolate members suspected of having the virus and the criteria personnel must meet before they can return to duty.

"It is imperative that all hands understand the importance of minimizing spread of COVID-19 within our ranks," a service release announcing the changes states. "... Navy leadership will continue to keep the fleet and families informed on the best way forward during this pandemic."

-- Gina Harkins can be reached at gina.harkins@military.com. Follow her on Twitter @ginaaharkins.

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