CDC Wants to Know if Some Sailors on Stricken Carrier Developed Coronavirus Immunity



The Navy and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will begin a voluntary testing of 1,000 sailors onboard the virus-stricken carrier Theodore Roosevelt over the next week to collect data that could give leaders a better understanding of how the virus affects populations in close quarters, officials said Friday.

Rear Adm. Bruce Gillingham, Surgeon General and Chief of Bureau of Medicine and Surgery, told reporters that medical personnel will take a swab sample and blood tests for sailors on the carrier, which remains docked in Guam amid the coronavirus outbreak which has affected nearly 600 sailors on board the ship; a sailor who was moved to an intensive care unit in Guam earlier this month died this week from the disease.

Sailors will be asked to fill out a survey which they disclose their age, other physical details and any potential preexisting conditions to determine which sailors may be most vulnerable to the disease, added Capt. Robert Hawkins, commander of the Navy and Marine Corps Public Health Center. Hawkins briefed alongside Gillingham and Dr. Dan Payne, epidemiologist for the CDC.

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“Both samples will be submitted to the CDC laboratory, where the nasal swab will undergo a diagnostic test for COVID-19,” Gillingham said. “The blood sample will undergo a new test that identifies COVID-19 antibodies in the blood … The results will tell us if people have been exposed to the coronavirus and subsequently developed antibodies.”

The outbreak analysis will also study how asymptomatic transmission — when those who have the virus spread it to other individuals before exhibiting symptoms themselves — takes place in a close-quarters environment, the officials said.

“We find the serologic testing to be very important because we can actually identify who did mount an immune response, some kind of antibody response against the infection, perhaps not even showing any symptoms,” Payne said. “So it helps us to unveil that angle of the investigation.”

“When you connect the results of the lab test together, you begin to get a picture that may allow us to adjust policies, to make policies and [to] inform public health practices a whole,” Hawkins added.

The process should take roughly one month to generate results.

The Navy has already tested more 92% of the sailors assigned to Roosevelt and discovered at least 585 positive cases of the virus. As of Sunday, the Navy said that 3,724 sailors have tested negative since the carrier pulled into Guam last month.

Officials on the call stressed the latest investigation will not focus on determining which individual may have been “patient zero,” though it is likely asymptomatic sailors — what Gillingham called “presymptomatic” — allowed the virus to pass through the ship “quite freely.”

Earlier this week, the Wall Street Journal reported that aircraft carrier onboard deliveries, known as CODs, were the catalyst for bringing COVID-19 on board the ship. The flights in question could have originated in the Philippines or Japan as the carrier operated in the Asia-Pacific region, an official told Military.com.

On Friday, a Navy official separately confirmed that the first two cases on the ship were from the air wing, but said officials have not delineated whether the aviators were from the COD flights, F/A-18 strike fighter squadrons, or the helicopter squadrons onboard the carrier.

Gillingham said crew members who have tested positive for COVID-19 remain in isolation at controlled locations and Naval base Guam, where they receive daily medical supporting care.

In addition to onboard medical personnel and members from US Naval Hospital Guam, the US Marine Corps’ 3rd Medical Battalion from Okinawa is assisting patients, he said.

— Gina Harkins contributed to this report.

— Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

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