2 Navy Warships in the Middle East Halt Operations over COVID-19 Outbreaks

 Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser USS Philippine Sea
The Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser USS Philippine Sea (CG 58) participates in a vertical replenishment-at-sea exercise with a Sikorsky Seahawk helicopter assigned to the Spanish frigate Álvaro de Bazán (F 101) in the Mediterranean Sea, Aug. 26, 2020. (Indra Beaufort/U.S. Navy)

A dozen troops on an amphibious transport dock ship and several more on a guided-missile cruiser have tested positive for the illness caused by the new coronavirus while deployed to the Middle East, prompting leaders to send the vessels into port to prevent widespread outbreaks.

The amphibious transport dock San Diego, which has been operating in the Middle East with sailors and Marines aboard, is in Bahrain after about a dozen service members on the ship tested positive for COVID-19. The infected troops have been isolated aboard the ship, and the crew remains in a "restricted COVID bubble," U.S. 5th Fleet officials said in an early Friday morning statement.

The cruiser Philippine Sea, which last month intercepted $2.8 million of heroin in the North Arabian Sea, will also soon pull into port to test all crew members after several people on that ship tested positive for the virus. Navy officials declined to disclose the port location ahead of the cruiser's arrival, citing operational security.

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"U.S. 5th Fleet is committed to taking every measure possible to protect the health of our force," the statement adds. "While the health and well-being of our personnel are a priority, we remain ready to support the U.S. Central Command mission and our regional and coalition partners."

The Navy has lost four sailors to COVID-19 this month and seven to the virus since the start of the pandemic. Nearly 1,700 sailors have caught the virus -- most of whom were assigned to the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt, which experienced a massive outbreak last year.

These are the first at-sea COVID-19 outbreaks to interrupt operations since the Roosevelt and destroyer Kidd had to halt missions in 2020. The Navy has introduced a host of safety measures to prevent outbreaks at sea. Sailors must quarantine for weeks ahead of deployments, and ships no longer make regular port visits, leaving some operating at sea for more than 200 days straight.

The outbreak aboard the Roosevelt left a chief petty officer dead and the carrier sidelined for weeks. The commanding officer of that ship was relieved of command, and the acting Navy secretary at the time later resigned over scrutiny of his handling of the crisis.

Navy officials said Friday that health professionals are conducting a "thorough contact investigation" to determine the source of COVID-19 aboard the two deployed ships and whether any other personnel may have been exposed.

The Navy has been coordinating with the Bahraini government and ministry of health since the San Diego arrived there, officials added. The ship is equipped with medical staff, operating rooms and a 24-bed hospital ward.

-- Gina Harkins can be reached at gina.harkins@military.com. Follow her on Twitter @ginaaharkins.

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