11 Days from Outbreak to Recovery: Milwaukee's Vaccinated Crew Back at Sea

The Freedom-variant littoral combat ship USS Milwaukee
The Freedom-variant littoral combat ship USS Milwaukee (LCS 5) departs Naval Station Guantanamo, Jan. 3, 2022. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Aaron Lau)

The littoral combat ship USS Milwaukee is back at sea, the Navy announced Monday, less than two weeks after members of the crew tested positive for COVID-19.

The ship outbreak is the first since the arrival of vaccines and a sharp contrast from the first major outbreak in March 2020 on the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt, which led to a sailor's death while others were quarantined in hotel rooms on Guam with more than 1,000 sailors testing positive for the coronavirus.

The Milwaukee, on a deployment to South America, paused in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, on the day before Christmas after some of the crew tested positive for the disease. The Associated Press reported that about two dozen sailors -- one-quarter of the crew -- tested positive for COVID-19.

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The Navy announced that the ship returned to sea Monday -- 11 days after the outbreak began. Cmdr. Kate Meadows, a spokeswoman for the Navy, told Military.com in an email that none of the crew members were hospitalized, left behind or swapped out with replacement sailors. The service has said that the entire crew is fully immunized.

The story of the Milwaukee stands in sharp contrast to the two other publicly known shipboard outbreaks of COVID-19. The outbreak on the Roosevelt in March, 2020 left the ship unable to return to sea until May, nearly two months of incapacitation, and the incident led to the firing of Capt. Brett Crozier, the carrier's captain, who clashed with leadership over the response to the outbreak.

Later, in January 2021, the destroyer USS Chafee also experienced a surge of COVID-19 cases. Navy Times reported that 41 sailors out of a 350-person crew either tested positive or were considered close contacts of those infected.

The Hawaii-based Chafee stayed in-port in San Diego for more than a month before getting underway again.

In the case of the Roosevelt, vaccines had yet to be developed; during the Chafee outbreak, they were available only to vulnerable populations.

Bradley Martin, a Rand Corp. researcher and former Navy captain who wrote a study on the Roosevelt outbreak, said the way the service handled the outbreak on the Milwaukee "appears to be an application of common sense and improved awareness of COVID effects."

Martin previously told Military.com that vaccines are not perfect, but their power lies in managing and mitigating the strength of outbreaks.

"If Milwaukee's underway in a week because everybody feels better it would kind of prove the point," he noted last week.

"The departure with the crew intact seems to have demonstrated appropriate risk management and prudence on the part of the Navy," Martin told Military.com in an email Tuesday.

As part of its response, the service also offered and recommended booster shots to the rest of the Milwaukee crew.

A Navy message released Dec. 22 notes that while booster shots are "not mandatory," they are "strongly recommended."

"Because all studies are converging on the need for a vaccine booster to ensure enduring protection, it is essentially becoming the next-shot in a series and will likely become mandatory in the near future," the message added.

The Pentagon has also begun to recommend a booster shot for all eligible Defense Department personnel.

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

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

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