Eight days after 1,900 sailors boarded the ships of the Makin Island Amphibious Ready Group, two of the ARG’s three ships had departed San Diego for an upcoming exercise as the Navy is restricting non-deployed movements to contain the spread of COVID-19 among its fleet.
When the sailors boarded the ARG ships USS Makin Island (LHD-8), USS Somerset (LPD-25) and USS San Diego (LPD-22) last week, the Navy was already responding to a COVID-19 outbreak spreading through USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71).
Navy officials have regularly stated the current policy is to follow Restriction of Movement (ROM) guidance dictating crews would remain on their ships for 14 days before departing. The idea is to avoid having a ship at sea if a crewmember develops COVID-19 symptoms.
As of Thursday, San Diego health officials reported 966 COVID-19 cases, according to the county government. When sailors were first restricted to their ships on March 26, San Diego reported having 417 cases.
The 14-day ROM policy was cited by Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael Gilday during a press briefing on Wednesday when asked about the risk the Navy was taking by loading sailors onto the Makin Island ARG ships, located in San Diego, a place where the number of COVID-19 cases is increasing.
“We’ve gone to a 14-day ROM period before these ships are getting underway. That is standard now,” Gilday said during a press briefing on Wednesday. “We’ve been following it down to every single ship before they get underway for any significant amount of time.”
However, Makin Island and Somerset are now at sea and San Diego is preparing to depart San Diego early next week. Navy officials didn’t provide an explanation why all three ships will have departed before the 14-day ROM expired.
“The Makin Island Amphibious Ready Group is currently conducting training essential to follow-on operational tasking. All exercises and operations are being evaluated on a case-by-case basis to ensure their critical necessity and we will continue to serve and deploy around the world,” Cmdr. John Fage, a spokesman for U.S. 3rd Fleet said in an email to USNI News. “Ships are sailing, planes are flying and training is happening to safeguard U.S. national interests and those of our allies and partners. That being said, the health of our force is our number one priority and we are ensuring we take every measure possible to keep or sailors healthy so they can sail, fly and train.”
Sailors boarding the ships were to undergo a medical screening to help the ship’s medical staff determine if the risk of anyone bringing COVID-19 on board. Additional screening was to occur daily. The ships also increased cleaning on board and limited the size of group meetings, Fage said.
“If any of our sailors present COVID-like symptoms, we will immediately get them off the ship and provide them with appropriate medical care,” Fage said.
At the time Makin Island departed, Fage said no COVID-19 cases had been reported on the ships. He did not know if any crewmember had been barred from boarding the ship because of failing the initial medical screening.
As for Theodore Roosevelt, after arriving in Guam last week, the aircraft carrier was forced to start unloading the majority of its crew and isolate them at hotels around the island as the Navy tries maintaining the ship, caring for sick crewmembers and keeping healthy sailors from catching the potentially deadly sickness.
The ship’s commanding officer was relieved of command Thursday, by Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly, following the release of a letter he wrote detailing the danger posed to the crew by what he considered was Navy leadership’s slow response to treat the outbreak on board.
Since being sequestered on the ships, the Makin Island ARG crews started employing social distancing measures as best they could, given the confined sleeping, working, dining and recreation spaces onboard a ship, Navy officials said.
Capt. Dave Kurtz, the commanding officer of Somerset, described on the ships’ Facebook page some of the social distancing measures employed and adaptations made to limit contact on what is a confined space. Teams move about the ship twice a day with cleanser to wipe down door handles and other surfaces touched frequently.
“We put Xs on the deck during our chow lines so that we don’t have sailors standing closer than six feet as they’re waiting in line, sending one person through the chow line at a time, and then sitting in every-other seat to minimize the interaction of the sailors on the mess decks,” Kurtz said. “We’re limiting the number of people in the work centers and limiting the number of people in the gym at any given time and we have some pretty thorough wipe down procedures before and after each set in the gym.”