As part of U.S. Southern Command's counter-drug operations surge, the Coast Guard national security cutter James headed to the Caribbean and Eastern Pacific in late March, carrying the usual complement of supplies for a 90-day deployment, plus a boatload of face masks, latex gloves, sanitizer, trash bags and other germ-fighting necessities.
Crews that handle bales of cocaine and marijuana usually take precautions with contraband, wearing gloves and minimizing contact with suspect traffickers. But deployment during the COVID-19 pandemic requires protective measures and a decontamination process few could have imagined during the Charleston, South Carolina-based cutter's pre-deployment workups, said Capt. Jeffrey Randall, the James' commanding officer.
No cutter wants to be the Coast Guard's version of the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt or Diamond Princess cruise ship.
"We've added an extra decontamination process to protect our people, protect our boats and our equipment -- things external to the ship. You set a seal around the ship," Randall told Military.com during an interview via satellite phone from the Pacific.
Since COVID-19 started spreading across the U.S. earlier this year, the Coast Guard has deployed at least seven cutters to the Caribbean and Eastern Pacific, working with the Navy and Air Force, as well as personnel and assets from 22 allied nations, for counter-narcotics operations.
Coast Guard vessels have logged 47 drug seizures, captured more than 85,000 pounds of cocaine and detained at least 100 suspected drug smugglers since the beginning of the year, according to Coast Guard spokesman Chief Warrant Officer 4 Barry Lane.
Coast Guard crews also have intercepted 3,100 migrants attempting to reach the U.S., according to Lane.
President Donald Trump announced the enhanced counterdrug operations during a White House briefing on the coronavirus response April 1, saying the effort was needed to ensure that drug cartels did not exploit the pandemic.
But the mission also is intended to send a message to Venezuela that drug trafficking supported by Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro won't be tolerated.
For the crew of the James, the deployment is business as usual, except for the extreme measures they are taking to keep the coronavirus off the cutter.
According to Randall, the COVID-19 prevention measures include no recreational port calls and minimal contact with port workers during resupply. They maintain distance during boarding operations, requiring space between their boarding crews and smuggling suspects. They strip their protective equipment before returning to James, wrapping it all in trash bags and sanitizing the small boat used for boarding. They constantly wipe down the ship and have a plan for keeping detainees sequestered from the crew.
"We would need to put them in a separate area away from the crew in case one of them was COVID positive. Then we're probably going to bring them back and work with the host nation to ensure that they face prosecution," Randall said.
Still, with any encounter, there is risk, he added.
"We minimize it, but we don't eliminate it," Randall said. "You can't let your guard down."
As of May 14, 91 Coast Guard members had been diagnosed with COVID-19, including 19 active cases. No one unit has sustained a "large-scale or highly concentrated outbreak," Lane said.
The Navy has not been as fortunate. It has been the service hardest hit by the pandemic, with 2,296 cases as of May 19, including at least 64 sailors on the guided missile destroyer Kidd and more than 1,100 on the Roosevelt.
U.S. Southern Command has not announced when the surge operations will end. And despite the operation's success, it has its share of critics, especially from drug policy reform advocates who believe the "war on drugs" is a waste of resources -- including, during the pandemic, personal protective gear that could have gone to health care workers.
"Instead of doubling down on the war on drugs that has been a failure in every sense, we should be focused on rebuilding communities and fostering the health and safety of all people. This is true at all times, but especially during a global pandemic," said Kassandra Frederique, managing director of policy advocacy and campaigns for the Drug Policy Alliance, in a statement.
Randall, whose crew had boarded three suspect vessels as of mid-May, said his ship carefully tracks the "burn rate" of its personal protective equipment and is not "taking it away from other priority needs."
Plus, he added, the counterdrug, fisheries enforcement and migrant interdiction missions are all vital to national security.
"Seventy thousand people a year, roughly, die from drug-related overdoses. So, any interdiction that we do out here helps reduce the number of overdose deaths in the U.S. and the violence that goes with it," Randall said.