'This Is Not a Repeat of the Roosevelt' - Navy's Latest COVID Outbreak May Show Value of Vaccines

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COVID-19 booster shot aboard the USS Milwaukee
Lt. Elliot Seeley receives a COVID-19 booster shot from Chief Hospital Corpsman Tiffany Salveson aboard the Freedom-variant littoral combat ship USS Milwaukee (LCS 5), Dec 28., 2021 (U.S. Navy photo by Operations Specialist 1st Class Jose Rodriguez)

The USS Milwaukee was sidelined this week in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, due to COVID-19, but the Navy's first reported ship outbreak since the early days of the pandemic may turn out to be a lesson in the value of vaccines rather than a repeat of past mistakes.

The ship's fully vaccinated crew could serve as a case study on how the shot can keep an outbreak brief and minimally disruptive, according to Bradley Martin, RAND Corporation researcher.

Martin analyzed a massive outbreak aboard the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt during the spring of 2020 that infected 1,271 sailors and forced the ship into a nearly two-month quarantine in Guam.

"Vaccines are a risk-mitigation tool, they're not intended to be perfectly effective ... but they do help," Martin, a retired Navy captain, told Military.com in an interview. "If Milwaukee's underway in a week because everybody feels better it would kind of prove the point."

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On Dec. 24, the Navy announced that the Milwaukee, a littoral combat ship, paused its deployment over the outbreak of coronavirus while making a port call at Naval Station Guantanamo Bay. Later reporting by the Associated Press said that about two dozen sailors -- roughly 25% of the crew -- tested positive for the virus.

Navy spokeswoman Cmdr. Kate Meadows said the Navy had no plans to swap out any of the crew, but she also added that there was no estimated date for the ship to get back to sea. Only a portion of those infected have exhibited mild symptoms, the service said.

Martin said the Navy response is an indication the service believes the outbreak can be dealt with readily.

"Given that the vaccine is effective in mitigating symptoms and given that there's no gigantic need to be somewhere, it seems like the most sensible course," Martin said.

The Navy said the crew of the Milwaukee is 100% vaccinated. But the outbreak is not a sign that vaccines are flawed, he said.

"If something is prone to spread, it's going to spread on a ship," Martin said. "That's just the nature of ships."

Martin was one of the authors of a study that shed light on what happened on the Roosevelt in the earliest months of the pandemic before any vaccines were available. A sailor died in the outbreak that began in March 2020 and others were quarantined in Guam hotel rooms while the ship was cleaned.

The Roosevelt wasn't able to return to sea until May, nearly two months later, and the incident led to the firing of Capt. Brett Crozier, the carrier's captain who clashed with leadership over the outbreak response. Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly was then forced to resign following widely criticized speech on the outbreak during a trip to the sidelined carrier.

One of the major factors in the Roosevelt disaster was an "inability to get clear guidance to the ship" from higher up in the Navy about how best to tackle widespread coronavirus infections.

The study also found that while the Navy did have plans to mitigate the spread of diseases such as the flu, a Department of Defense watchdog report found that the vast majority of naval commanders did not conduct the required biennial training on those methods.

The Milwaukee outbreak comes nearly two years after the carrier fiasco, with the vast majority of sailors already fully vaccinated and the Navy more adept at dealing with the disease.

"This is not a repeat of the Roosevelt," Martin said. "I think the Navy has learned something."

The Navy has offered sailors on the Milwaukee booster shots. "While we recommend boosters, they are not mandatory," Meadows said in an email.

The push for booster shots on the ship comes as the Pentagon has begun to recommend an additional vaccine shot to everyone eligible for one at the Department of Defense. Troops, civilians and dependents who have completed an initial vaccination against COVID-19 -- either one shot or two-shot series -- are eligible for a booster shot after 6 months.

On Dec. 20, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters that nearly 100,000 active-duty servicemembers had already received boosters.

The Navy has not said whether the outbreak on the Milwaukee is from the highly contagious Omicron variant of the virus, but Kirby has said that "given its rapid spread in the United States, we would expect Omicron cases will continue to rise within DoD in the near term."

-- Konstantin Toropin can be reached at konstantin.toropin@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @ktoropin.

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