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Navy, CDC to launch Theodore Roosevelt coronavirus outbreak study

USS Theodore Roosevelt (Jackie Hart/U.S. Navy)

The Navy is coordinating with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in an investigation into the novel coronavirus outbreak on board the San Diego-based aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt, the Navy announced Friday.

The outbreak on the Roosevelt is the single largest in the military, with 660 members of its crew testing positive for the novel coronavirus, seven in the hospital and one sailor who died Monday.

The virus has sidelined the carrier in Guam for three weeks, where 4,000 sailors have been quarantined off the ship.

Rear Adm. Bruce Gillingham said Friday that officials hope the study will help the military and the country better understand how the virus behaves.

“The results of this investigation will inform medical professionals to support better public health decisions for the ship. It will also advise the broader COVID-19 surveillance and mitigation strategy for the (Theodore Roosevelt), the fleet and our nation,” Gillingham said in a call with reporters.

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The investigation will be done by the Navy and Marine Corps Public Health Center in partnership with the CDC.

They will begin gathering data Monday and spend about a week surveying sailors. The Navy is asking for 1,000 volunteers from the Roosevelt’s crew to undergo additional saliva tests and antibody blood tests.

The Roosevelt left San Diego in January for a routine deployment. It was sidelined in March after sailors began testing positive for the virus 15 days after a port visit to Vietnam.

The first two cases of the virus were found among two members of the ship’s air wing, a Navy official told the Union-Tribune Friday. However, because the two cases came to light 15 days after the port visit to Vietnam, Gillinghan could not say how the virus got on board.

He said identifying the first case isn’t the goal of the investigation.

“The intent of investigation is not to get to the source; it’s to better understand the behavior of virus going forward,” he said. “The information gained will add to the growing body of public health knowledge about this virus so that we can better understand it and fight it.”

Blood samples will be tested at the CDC’s laboratory in Atlanta using the agency’s new serology test, which can identify antibodies and tell researchers whether a person has been exposed to the virus even if they are showing no symptoms.

About 60 percent of the 660 Roosevelt sailors who have tested positive so far have shown no COVID-19 symptoms, Pentagon officials said this week. Gillingham said one of the investigation goals is to determine how much the virus spread without sailors showing symptoms.

“Because of the pre-symptomatic transmission, we believe that it probably passed through the ship quite freely and was initially unrecognized,” Gillingham said.

The Roosevelt pulled into Guam March 28 as the virus spread out-of-control among its crews.

The ship’s commanding officer, Capt. Brett Crozier, was fired seven days later, after a letter he wrote predicting dire consequences for his crew if the Navy did not move them off the ship was leaked to the media and widely publicized.

After Crozier’s firing, then-acting Navy secretary Thomas Modly flew to Guam and, in a 15-minute speech to the Roosevelt’s crew over the ship’s public address system, insulted the former captain, saying Crozier was either “too naive or too stupid” to command a ship if he didn’t know his letter would leak.

Modly resigned as acting Navy secretary the next day after audio of that speech also leaked.

One Roosevelt sailor, Chief Aviation Ordnanceman Charles Thacker, 41, died Monday from complications of COVID-19.

As of Friday, seven Roosevelt sailors are being treated for the disease caused by the novel coronavirus at Naval Hospital Guam. One is in intensive care for what the Navy says is “increased observation.”

The crew of more than 4,000 is expected to begin moving back on board once they finish 14-day quarantines on shore, Gillingham told the Union-Tribune.

COVID-19 testing of the Roosevelt’s crew is ongoing but has stalled at about 94 percent tested.

The skeleton crew left behind on board won’t be tested until they rotate off to spend 14 days in quarantine, Gillingham said. They have been keeping watch of the ship’s two nuclear reactors and disinfecting the ship.

The Navy and CDC expect results from the study in about a month, Gillingham said.

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© 2020 The San Diego Union-Tribune