The Navy plans to launch a medical investigation Monday to study the spread of COVID-19 onboard the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt in an effort to better understand how to stifle future outbreaks, officials said Friday.
With assistance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Navy medicine is expected to test approximately 1,000 volunteers from TR using nasal swabs, blood samples, and questionnaires, according to Navy Surgeon General Rear Adm. Bruce Gillingham. The samples will then be transported to CDC headquarters in Atlanta to be analyzed.
Officials said the investigation, which is separate from the service’s inquiry into the dismissal of the ship’s previous commanding officer, Capt. Brett Crozier, is expected to last approximately one month.
While these trials will be more advanced than previously administered diagnostic tests — blood samples are not used for a diagnosis — they are not designed to determine the exact source of the virus onboard TR, Gillingham said.
The obscured picture of where the virus first boarded the vessel clarified slightly when one Navy official, speaking on background, told Navy Times that incoming crews performing routine supply flight operations were the likely culprits — not a port call in Da Nang, Vietnam, as previously believed.
This theory, which was first reported by the Wall Street Journal, was developed after learning that the first sailors to exhibit symptoms did so more than 2 weeks after the ship departed Vietnam, a span in excess of the virus’ incubation period.
Regardless of patient zero’s itinerary prior to boarding the carrier, the virus spread exponentially as soon as it was introduced.
“Because of the pre-symptomatic transmission, we believe that it probably passed through the ship quite freely and that it was initially unrecognized,” Gillingham said.
Now, the Navy and CDC hope to learn as much as possible by cross referencing new data gathered from upcoming tests and questionnaires.
“The nasal swab will undergo a diagnostic test for COVID-19, the blood sample will undergo a new test that identifies COVID-19 antibodies in the blood,” Gillingham told reporters Friday. “This type of testing is called a serology test.”
“The serologic test ... determines basically whether or not an infection previously occurred,” added Dr. Dan Payne, epidemiologist at the CDC.
“So, this will detect antibodies that your body produces to counter that virus during the infection. ... And so, we find the serologic testing to be very important because we can actually identify who did mount an immune response.”
Payne said that although the serologic test can reveal a previous infection, “it’s not necessarily an indicator of immunity.”
Testing of Theodore Roosevelt volunteers is expected to take approximately one week.
The remaining crew onboard the ship, meanwhile, which has been conducting ongoing deep-cleaning, is expected to disembark and receive diagnostic tests once cleaning procedures conclude.
The carrier has been in port in Guam since March 27. As of Friday, 660 Theodore Roosevelt sailors have contracted COVID-19, Navy officials said. Nearly 85 percent of the ship’s crew have been evacuated and moved ashore.
Chief Aviation Ordnanceman Charles Robert Thacker, Jr., 41, died April 13 at U.S. Naval Hospital Guam due to COVID-19 complications.
The chief petty officer was moved to the intensive care unit on April 9 after being found unresponsive by other quarantined sailors. He is the first Theodore Roosevelt sailor to succumb to the virus.
Navy officials would not specify whether Thacker had any preexisting medical conditions that made him more susceptible to the virus.
“My number one priority is the health and well being of our sailors and Marines,” Gillingham said. “Since the beginning of this outbreak, Navy medicine has been providing support to the TR with the best knowledge tools and public health practices available at the time.
“The crew continues to weather this storm with great strength and resolve as they ... mourn the loss of a shipmate and work through the mental difficulties, as well as the anxiety, that many of us feel about this virus.”
Jon Simkins is a writer and editor for Military Times, and a USMC veteran.