USS Theodore Roosevelt: Lessons from a COVID-19-Infected Aircraft

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If there was a fitting example of the superior military might of the United States, an aircraft carrier is highly likely to top that list. These floating cities, capable of launching an aircraft in the middle of the ocean, are the capital sheep in a fleet. To date, of the 43 total aircraft carriers worldwide, America owns 11, all nuclear-powered. To think that Russia, China, India, France, and the UK own but one each speaks volumes on the country’s vast military resources all over the world.

Among the biggest of these titans is the USS Theodore Roosevelt, an aircraft carrier named after one of the country’s most well-loved presidents. As a Nimitz-class nuclear-powered battleship, this one boasts 97,000 tons of full-load displacement capable of carrying as many as 60 aircraft. Imagine that.

And yet, as extraordinary as the USS Theodore Roosevelt is, disaster struck it in 2020. The giant succumbed to an invisible enemy, COVID-19. Taking a closer look into it should give us a clue how to go about such a floating medical emergency.

Surviving a Floating Virus Prison

As infectious as COVID-19 is, the limited space of a ship (no matter how big) makes it a fitting breeding ground for the virus. There may have been warning sea incidents before on how even the most advanced technology can give in to the most rudimentary of threats. The Diamond Princess cruise ship COVID-19 infection incident in Japan can be considered as that warning.

After its tour around Asian ports, the Diamond Princess with 2666 passengers docked at Yokohama Port in Japan on February 3. It’s apparent that at this point, the nature of the virus was still not that apparent. Initially, the Japanese government wanted passengers who did not test positive and those asymptomatic to disembark, thinking the virus was not spreading. Eventually, disembarking was not allowed, and people stayed in the luxury boat for weeks. In the end, there were 691 infected cases by February 23. Worse, three deaths were reported.

For its part, the USS Theodore Roosevelt is a military ship with men of rigid training and superior health. It shouldn’t go down as badly as the Diamond Princess.

But it did.

The aircraft carrier had a 4-day stop in Da Nang, Vietnam, which included a 400-person reception in a posh hotel on March 5. As the country was categorized as low-risk by CDC, it seems things were looking good. But they were actually not.

By late March, two weeks after Vietnam, a full-blown COVID-19 outbreak was reported in the USS Theodore Roosevelt. Needless to say, it was a slap in the face for the most powerful military on the planet. After weeks of containing the virus, 736 of the 4,085 sailors on board were infected — the captain including.

Fortunately, only one died. The biggest casualty was the sacking of the captain of the ship, Captain Brett Cozier, who recommended everyone clear the ship, causing more public uproar. And feeling the pinch, the Secretary of the Navy also resigned.

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USS Theodore Roosevelt Medical Lessons

Come to think of it; you really can’t fault the brave soldiers of that ship. For their bravery, we could say everyone deserves recognition. For instance, a military challenge coin could be best. A well-minted coin that speaks of beauty and power can be an apt symbol of their courage and dedication that allowed them to survive one of the world’s most vicious killers to date on a close encounter.

So who’s to blame?

Top experts point a finger to the confined space as a breeding ground for the virus. A known epidemiologist, John Malone, commented that sailors worked in close quarters with linear fan ventilation that could have been instrumental in spreading the virus via air. In such a scenario, the usual protocols (wearing of masks, physical distancing) may not be enough.

Moreover, studies show that those sailors in Roosevelt who more masks had lower risks of getting the virus. Further testing revealed 1,273 sailors were infected.

Another contributing factor was that the ship didn’t have any COVID-19 testing kits. So distinguishing symptoms of infection from common respiratory problems was an uphill climb.

It was also observed that as soon as the sailors disembarked, there was a massive decrease in the infection. This could mean that shore-based intervention worked. Too bad that by the time things have settled, the captain was fired, and the Secretary of the Navy resigned.

Today the military has learned its lesson well. To date,  pre-movement sequestration is being implemented. It’s basically a 14-day quarantine for soldiers who have never been exposed to the virus. And tests could be done while in that period to make sure. As the saying goes, forewarned is forearmed.

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