The USS Nimitz narrowly avoided a major COVID-19 outbreak, Navy officials say

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Is the USS Nimitz aircraft carrier facing a novel coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak? The Navy and the Joint Chiefs of Staff can't seem to agree.

On Thursday, Air Force Gen. John Hyten, vice chairman the Joint Chiefs of Staff, stated that there is a “very small number of breakouts on the [USS Nimitz]," breakouts that the Defense Department is watching "very closely" before the aircraft carrier deploys from its home port in Bremerton, Washington state, in the coming months.

Hyten's comments follow a Politico report which revealed that a sailor assigned to the Nimitz tested positive for the virus and a Washington Post report which stated that a sailor who displayed symptoms ultimately tested inconclusive. 

But Cmdr. John Fage, a Navy spokesman, had previously said in a statement on Wednesday that there are “no confirmed positive cases of COVID-19 on board USS Nimitz at this time.”  

One sailor displayed symptoms and was isolated off the ship out of an abundance of caution, Fage said. That sailor’s test was inconclusive, but presumed to be positive.

While another sailor did test positive for COVID-19, they did so “while out of state on leave in early March," Fage said, adding that the sailor has not been "to or aboard Nimitz since departing the area on leave."

So are there "breakouts" of COVID-19 on the Nimitz or not? Not really: Lt. Rochelle Rieger, a 3rd Fleet spokeswoman, reiterated to Task & Purpose on Thursday that those two cases cited by Fage —one positive and one presumed positive — are currently the only cases among the Nimitz crew. 

The spread of the virus aboard the ship appears to have been halted before it started.

The aircraft carrier USS Nimitz (CVN 68) and embarked Carrier Air Wing (CVW) 11 transits into San Diego prior to mooring at Naval Air Station North Island. Nimitz is preparing for a 2009 regularly scheduled Western Pacific Deployment.

The aircraft carrier USS Nimitz (CVN 68) and embarked Carrier Air Wing (CVW) 11 transits into San Diego prior to mooring at Naval Air Station North Island. Nimitz is preparing for a 2009 regularly scheduled Western Pacific Deployment.

Rieger said that after the one sailor tested positive, Nimitz officials did a close proximity investigation to find out who came into close contact with them before subsequently removing another 15 sailors from the ship as a precaution.

Those sailors have been isolated off the ship and are not showing any symptoms, Rieger said.

All of this happened before the fast cruise, a period of time when the crew is required to stay on board the ship. Since that period began on April 1, there have been no cases on board. There have, however, been a handful of sailors who have shown symptoms, Rieger said; they tested negative for COVID-19, but have been removed from the ship as a precaution and are in self-quarantine. 

To get the sailors back on the ship, they'll have to meet one of two requirements, Reiger said: they'll either stop having symptoms, and test negative for the virus, or they'll have to meet certain time requirements. 

Rieger added that the sailor whose tests were inconclusive and was being treated as a positive case has “met the time requirements to be considered recovered” — meaning it has been two weeks since the symptoms first appeared, and three additional days have passed with no symptoms at all. The sailor is currently preparing to go back on board the Nimitz.

As for what sailors are to do aboard the ship if they start feeling symptoms, Rieger said they've been told not to physically go down to medical but to try to isolate themselves as best as possible before alerting medical personnel.

"They will put on all the proper PPE, and they will come to the sailor wherever they are on the ship," Rieger said, adding that if medical personnel determine a sailor is showing symptoms similar to COVID-19, they'll "begin the process to immediately get the sailor off the ship."

All of this follows the dramatic saga between the sailors of the USS Theodore Roosevelt — whose captain was removed after sounding the alarm in a letter to Navy leadership over concerns about the virus spreading aboard the ship — and Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly which ultimately ended in Modly's resignation on Tuesday

There are currently 416 positive cases of COVID-19 among the Roosevelt's crew.

Update: This story has been updated with additional information about sailors who showed symptoms aboard the USS Nimitz after the fast cruise began.