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U.S. Navy Policies Battling COVID-19 Rely Heavily On Isolation


The Navy recently suffered a very public outbreak of the coronavirus on the USS Roosevelt. It confirmed the value of testing and tracking and quarantine as the nation continues to reopen. Steve Walsh with member station KPBS in San Diego has more.

STEVE WALSH, BYLINE: On April 23, a sailor from the USS Kidd was diagnosed with COVID-19, the second outbreak onboard a Navy ship. Commander Michael Kaplan was at the Navy Medical Center in Jacksonville, Fla. His team was flown to El Salvador, where the Navy destroyer was anchored off the coast.

MICHAEL KAPLAN: So we were there within hours of that positive test result.

WALSH: By the time they arrived, the ship's medical team had isolated 20 to 30 sailors who were showing symptoms.

KAPLAN: It was actually kind of somewhat of a surreal situation. Not too many people would probably want to run into a burning building, and that's probably the best analogy.

WALSH: And it's not an overstatement. The Navy has had the most cases of any of the services. Roughly half of its more than 2,000 cases have come from outbreaks aboard two ships - the carrier USS Roosevelt and a month later onboard the USS Kidd. One of the lessons learned from the Roosevelt, the Navy moved quickly to track down everyone who was sick onboard the Kidd. Again, Navy doctor Michael Kaplan.

KAPLAN: That was exactly our plan, was to try to test 100% of the crew as quickly as possible. So we worked 24/7, round the clock, from the moment we got there to the time we left. And it took us about 3 1/2 days to get everybody onboard, over 300 people, tested.

WALSH: Keeping the virus away from sailors is a constant challenge. The new Navy buzz phrase is creating the bubble. They isolate sailors in small groups. In May, the Navy SEALs used the bubble to justify reopening portions of its notoriously grueling basic training, including hell week.


UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Unintelligible).

WALSH: In this 2011 footage of SEAL training, cadets are shown being pushed to the brink of collapse. Commodore Bart Randall says the Navy can keep sailors crammed together during training because the cadets are isolated from other classes and from the rest of the base.

BART RANDALL: Those guys - that bubble is solid. We are increasing all the social distancing in our classrooms, in the chow hall. There are some things that we just - we're not going to change these standards, though. We're not changing the quality of training.

WALSH: The Navy is still ramping up testing. It's been a struggle. The Naval Health Research Center was granted authority to test by the CDC on February 12, but it took another two weeks before hospitals figured out a process for getting samples to the lab, says Dr. Chris Myers.

CHRIS MYERS: The case definition in the beginning was very limiting. Right? So you had to have specific travel to Wuhan, China, and other limitations or at least contact with someone that met the COVID definition. So meeting that narrow case definition may have been problematic in the beginning.

WALSH: With each month, the tests themselves are getting faster. The test used on the Kidd showed results within 15 minutes, says Dr. Kaplan, who responded to the initial outbreak. 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 onboard the Kidd.

KAPLAN: A ship is a tough place to have an outbreak. But again, we actually were able to implement a number of different steps to try to mitigate the spread that, hopefully, other ships in the future, we're going to make it part of their standard operating procedures, such as, you know, routine cleaning.

WALSH: The Navy is also keeping vessels at sea to prevent the cruise 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 were sequestered in Washington state for nearly a month prior. The ship was just deployed, but 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.

For NPR News, I'm Steve Walsh.


Steve Walsh