Navy Shifts COVID-19 Strategy on Ships To Adhere to CDC Guidance as Omicron Variant Surges

January 26, 2022 7:23 PM
Hull Maintenance Technician 1st Class Jenny Wilkinson, from Mt. Upton, N.Y., assigned to the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Dewey (DDG-105), simulates a class alpha fire during an in-port emergency team (IET) drill while underway in the South China Sea on Jan. 15, 2022. US Navy Photo

New naval guidance for operating under COVID-19 will include shorter isolation periods for those with the virus, as the Navy moves to a fully vaccinated fleet.

The new standard operating guidance, issued Jan. 15 by deputy chief of naval operations for operations, plans and strategy Vice Adm. William Merz, follows guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which lowered isolation periods for those who were sick with COVID-19.

The new guidance is based on the latest research into the virus, which suggests COVID-19 is manageable, Merz said.

“I think this latest [standard operating guidance] is a nice balance [or] update, taking into account what we’ve learned, our demographic, as I said, and the vaccination status,” Merz said.

It also adjusts the Navy’s operations to better align with the omicron variant, which has spread through ships already. Merz said the cases aboard Navy ships tend to be milder due to fully vaccinated and younger crews.

The Navy has seen all variants on its ships, Merz said. While not all ships have had issues with COVID-19, those that have, including USS Milwaukee (LCS-5), demonstrated that the service’s mitigation steps do work, he said.

Merz did not release the other ships that have had COVID-19 cases.

“So it’s coming and going all the time, very small numbers and really no operational impact,” he said. “And the teams are just very, very attuned to watching their indications and reacting to it.”

The new guidance, however, does not emphasize the sense that the COVID-19 pandemic will become an endemic, where the disease continuously exists, like with influenza, Merz said.

It is still unknown if COVID-19 will be endemic or if there will be another variant behind omicron, Merz said, adding that he sees the idea of living with the disease as accepting defeat.

“So we are kind of in the camp, yeah, we can win this just diligently applying the tools we have,” Merz said.

Under the new NAVADMIN 07/22, any symptomatic sailor will be tested for COVID-19. If they test positive, they will isolate for five days or whenever symptoms begin to clear, with the isolation period dependent on which of the two scenarios is longer. After being released from isolation, a sailor must wear a mask for an additional five days.

The shortened isolation policy is in line with the CDC’s guidance, which recommends five days of isolation and then five days of mask-wearing after leaving isolation.

Close contacts of the positive sailor will get tested as well, with asymptomatic personnel tested two to five days after exposure. Sailors can work while asymptomatic and waiting for a test, although they will have to wear masks.

Anyone with symptoms who tests negative will consult with a medical provider before returning to duty.

Sailors will not be tested again for 90 days after testing positive, due to persistent positive results even if a sailor is no longer symptomatic, according to the guidance.

Testing sailors with symptoms is the priority, according to the guidance. If there’s a situation where testing asymptomatic sailors will stress testing supplies or the operation prevents testing, commanders are allowed to forgo testing asymptomatic close contacts.

Testing supplies have not been an issue, Merz said.

The new guidance operates on the premise that all sailors in the operational force are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, meaning they are two weeks post the last of the two-shot Pfizer or Moderna options or the one-shot Johnson and Johnson.

While the booster shot is not mandated, as it does not have FDA approval, it is encouraged. Once the FDA approves the booster shot, Merz expects it to be required.

Those who are not fully vaccinated due to an exemption will be given a non-operational billet, Merz said. Those with temporary medical exemptions will be required to get vaccinated once their medical reasons are handled.

They will then be assigned to an operational billet after a conversation with their commander and medical provider, said Surgeon General of the Navy Rear Adm. Bruce Gillingham. The Navy will assign sailors to make sure they are not at risk of medical harm.

There are currently 5,035 active-duty sailors who are not vaccinated, according to the Navy’s weekly COVID-19 update, released Wednesday.

Although there is no ship-wide testing, the new guidance does call for medical screening, which will help commanders understand the crew’s history with COVID-19.

Crews will also continue to practice advanced hygiene practices and be required to wear masks for the first 10 days aboard. Although sailors are educated about masks, there are no requirements for sailors to wear N95 or KN95 masks.

The Navy does provide masks and tests for its sailors, which has had a nominal effect on the budget, Merz said. He estimated the disease’s effect on the budget is smaller this year than it was in the first year of the disease.

It is also more cost-efficient to separate a sailor, despite the cost of training, than to have the sailor cause an outbreak or a need for a medical evacuation, Merz said.

The Navy has so far separated 45 active-duty sailors for continued refusal to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

Heather Mongilio

Heather Mongilio

Heather Mongilio is a reporter with USNI News. She has a master’s degree in science journalism and has covered local courts, crime, health, military affairs and the Naval Academy.
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