Slowly but surely, COVID-19 vaccines are being jabbed into sailors’ arms across the fleet.
From the aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan in Japan to four-star leaders and the crews of ballistic missile submarines, sailors are getting doses of the either the Pfizer or Moderna variants of the life-saving vaccine.
But limited vaccine doses and rigid deployment timetables mean that the soon-to-deploy aircraft carrier Dwight D. Eisenhower and its strike group won’t get vaccinated before the carrier’s double-pump deployment commences, likely later this month.
These realities have left some Ike sailors wondering why they haven’t been made a priority for the vaccines, and feeling as if the decision is the latest slight against the workhorse carrier by Big Navy.
Ike returned home from a record-breaking deployment with no port calls this summer.
Now, a few months later, they’re readying for a double-pump deployment and began quarantine on Dec. 28.
The pace of operations and Big Navy’s COVID suppression measures are placing added stress and strain upon sailors and raising questions in some circles about retention and the material readiness of Navy ships, compounding issues that existed well before the pandemic.
One Ike officer who requested anonymity for fear of retribution questioned the rigidity of the carrier’s deployment schedule and why the Navy couldn’t ensure they were offered the vaccine before shipping out.
“You are taking a ship that was home for less than approximately four months total in all of 2020, without hitting a single port call … loading them up for round two and telling them that they are not a priority to receive the vaccine?” the officer told Navy Times. “We don’t have a single person in the upper chain of command who has our back or will ask and answer the hard questions.”
Despite the pre-deployment quarantine of sailors, the Ike crew has already had some positive COVID cases, according to the officer.
U.S. 2nd Fleet spokeswoman Cmdr. Ashley Hockycko declined to say how many Ike sailors have tested positive in recent weeks but said it was a “very small” number.
No vaccine for the Ike strike group has led the carrier officer to wonder if the crew will be forced to deploy once again with no port calls to maintain their COVID-free bubble.
“The Ike not getting vaccinated is one more slap across the face to this beaten down crew,” the officer told Navy Times. “We should have priority, just like all other branches prioritize their deploying members.”
While some Norfolk ship crews were getting vaccinated this week, the Ike carrier strike group’s schedule and overall vaccine supplies prevented those sailors from getting their jabs, according to Hockycko.
The ship got underway this week for training.
The Pentagon’s vaccination plan calls for frontline healthcare workers and first responders to get the vaccine first, followed by “critical national capabilities” like subs carrying nuclear weapons, followed by deploying units.
“Unfortunately, due to the timeline the vaccine became available during our pre-underway planning process, we were not able to get IKECSG both doses of the vaccine prior to upcoming operations,” Hockycko said, adding that Ike sailors would have had to break their-pre deployment quarantine to go get the shots down the road at Naval Medical Center Portsmouth, Virginia.
Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines require two shots that are spaced several weeks apart.
Hampton Roads has only received the Pfizer vaccine, but not enough to vaccinate all health care workers and first responders in addition to the entire strike group, she said.
At-sea jabs of the Pfizer variant are also not possible, Hockycko said.
“The Pfizer vaccine requires ultra-cold storage, and carriers, cruisers and destroyers do not have the (U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)-required ultra-cold freezers required to store the vaccine onboard, which would make it impossible for the Sailors to be administered the second dose,” she said. “The good news is that the vaccine rollout plan is well underway, and we are executing a plan to ensure all future deploying units have the opportunity to receive both doses of the vaccine prior to departure.”
Navy officials declined to say this week how many sailors have been vaccinated to date, citing “OPSEC.”
But according to the CDC, nearly 160,000 first doses of the vaccine have been administered within the U.S. Defense Department, while just more than 16,000 people have received the second dose, which comes weeks later.
Not all Ike sailors were as strident about the carrier being prioritized for the vaccines.
One petty officer who also asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution said they were skeptical about the vaccine and thought it needed “to be further tested.”
The petty officer said that since most of the crew are young and healthy, COVID infections have not been severe in the ranks.
“I know some of my brothers and sisters would like to get vaccinated for their family members’ sake,” the petty officer added.