An unseen adversary: USS Ronald Reagan’s unprecedented fight against COVID-19
An unseen adversary: USS Ronald Reagan’s unprecedented fight against COVID-19
“I-L-I reported in compartment three tack, one eight zero tack, zero tack, quebec. Away the COVID response team away. All hands not involved stand clear.”
Announcing an “ILI,” or influenza-like illness, hasn’t always been a standard announcement on a U.S. Navy warship’s 1MC (ship’s announcement system). But aboard the U.S. Navy’s only forward-deployed aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76), it’s about as common as hearing “mail call” since the ship returned to Commander, Fleet Activities Yokosuka (CFAY), November 2020, following a six-month deployment to the U.S. 7th Fleet area of responsibility.
The ILI response is just one of many tools implemented by Ronald Reagan and its medical department in the fight against COVID-19. Since returning to CFAY, leadership established an entirely new department, the COVID Response Center (CRC), aboard the ship. They also partnered with U.S. Naval Hospital Yokosuka to vaccinate thousands of Sailors from Ronald Reagan, all other ships on the waterfront, and several shore commands. Additionally, the CRC continually advises and enforces command mitigations and policies, while also coordinating with support units ashore in providing care for Sailors with positive COVID-19 test results, symptoms, and those arriving from outside Japan.
Ronald Reagan’s response efforts began before the ship’s return to stay ahead of any complications and help ease the base concerns surrounding the return of thousands of Sailors.
Bringing 3,000 Sailors back to Japan
Naturally, the idea of bringing approximately 3,000 Sailors back to CFAY stirred up concerns among leadership and the CFAY community. Ronald Reagan Sailors had been in a COVID-free “bubble” for several months, and re-introducing them to the community had to be done carefully.
“A few weeks out, we had already started talking about how COVID was going to impact our return to Yokosuka,” said Capt. Fred Goldhammer, commanding officer of Ronald Reagan. “It was a mindset shift for us – we had a COVID-free bubble established. So we had to start thinking about how going back to Yokosuka meant breaking that bubble.”
Ronald Reagan leadership began preparations for the return while underway to stay ahead of the curve and plan for ways to quickly identify COVID once back in Yokosuka.
“We had a whole standard operating procedure for when we returned to Yokosuka,” said Capt. Merrill Rice, Ronald Reagan’s senior medical officer. “It would allow us to quickly identify a COVID case either by evaluating a Sailor at the base hospital’s Acute Respiratory Care Clinic (ARCC) or evaluating them on the ship.”
Rapid detection and response
The shipboard procedure for Sailors with symptoms are the ILI responses, said Rice. In pre-COVID-19 days, Sailors would report to the ship’s main medical clinic for any symptom or injury. Now, Sailors with flu-like symptoms stay in place and call main medical to report their symptoms. This initiates the ILI response on the 1MC. A dedicated team from ship’s medical will don suits and escort the Sailor from their space to the closest medical treatment space, usually a battle dressing station (BDS). The ILI response not only keeps a possible COVID-positive Sailor from infecting others in the main medical space, but allows the medical team to assess and test the Sailor in an isolated space, the BDS.
Sailors experiencing flu-like symptoms off the ship are directed to report to the ARCC for examination and testing. At least one Ronald Reagan corpsman works at the ARCC to provide support for Ronald Reagan Sailors, said Rice.
The ILI response and ARCC continue to prove essential in detecting COVID-19 among Ronald Reagan’s crew. But, what happens if a Sailor does test positive? Ronald Reagan developed key support teams aboard and ashore to quickly respond.
Expanding the response effort
Ronald Reagan’s plans to return to Yokosuka included the formation of support teams to aid in the response to any positive COVID-19 cases.
“COVID mitigation efforts while underway had to be expanded once ashore,” said Goldhammer. This included the formation of the ship’s unofficial “21st department,” the CRC, and the shore-based COVID Support Team.
The CRC is considered the “central nervous system” of the entire operation, said Cmdr. Mark David, director of the CRC. “The purpose of the CRC is to protect the ship, and we do that by protecting the health of our Sailors. By maintaining a healthy workforce, we can get through SRA (Ship’s Restricted Availability) and the maintenance we need to complete, and be ready to deploy.”
The CRC handles the logistics and administrative side of Ronald Reagan’s COVID response. It consists of a small number of Sailors from other departments and operates 24/7 aboard the ship, keeping the most updated status of Sailors in quarantine or travel restriction of movement (ROM). If a Sailor tests positive, either at the ARCC or aboard the ship, medical staff notify the CRC immediately. The CRC then coordinates to place the Sailor in quarantine off the ship and works to quickly identify the Sailor’s close contacts, said David.
Once the response process moves to shore, it’s taken over by the COVID Support Team (CST) – another lifeline in Ronald Reagan’s fight against COVID-19.
The CST is based in the CFAY barracks where Ronald Reagan Sailors reside, whether for quarantine or in travel ROM after arriving in Japan. Along with the “Reagan Ranch” – the ship’s new arrival support branch – the CST is responsible for the complete support and care of these Sailors in isolation, said Master Chief Aviation Ordnanceman Jose Rivera, the officer-in-charge at Reagan Ranch.
“The COVID Support Team provides support for service members and their family who are going into ROM or quarantine,” said Rivera. “Personnel arriving in Japan are picked up at the bus terminal by Reagan Ranch staff. They are taken to the ROM and quarantine facilities, and the COVID Support Team takes over from there, checking them into a room, and providing meals and essentials during their 14-day stay. The Sailor’s information is then provided to the CRC who track their isolation time and test results. There are a lot of moving parts and things that come together to make the COVID Support Team work.”
The 50 Ronald Reagan Sailors who comprise the CST do everything from delivering food and essentials, installing Wi-Fi and TVs in rooms, and coordinating chaplain services if Sailors feel negatively impacted from the isolation time, said Rivera. “At the end of the day, I want everyone to know that every Sailor and family member that comes through here is taken care of, and that’s our main mission.”
Goldhammer reflected upon the efforts of the shipboard and ashore support teams in the three months that Ronald Reagan has been back in Yokosuka.
“Since November, we’ve applied an estimated 24,000 man-hours to organize our response, get Sailors and their families the care they need, and stop the spread of COVID-19,” said Goldhammer. “It’s completely different from anything we’d ever done before.”
Vaccinating the waterfront: a team effort
The next leap in Ronald Reagan’s fight against COVID-19 came around the end of December 2020, when the COVID-19 vaccine became available for the ship’s crew as part of the vaccination plan for all units operating under Commander, Seventh Fleet.
“We partnered with U.S. Naval Hospital Yokosuka to organize an entire waterfront vaccination effort,” said Goldhammer. “Our aim was to get Ronald Reagan Sailors and Sailors on other ships and commands at CFAY vaccinated so we can work towards establishing ‘herd immunity.’”
Vaccinating a community as large as CFAY posed challenges – the first of which was finding a suitable location.
Rivera and Reagan Ranch staff reserved the Hawk’s Nest, one of CFAY’s indoor fitness facilities that consists of a large, open court and mat area. They set up the facility to allow for social distancing through every step of the vaccination process.
Additionally, Ronald Reagan's leadership faced the challenge of educating the crew about the vaccine.
“Given how new the vaccine was, it required a pretty massive educational undertaking to make sure the crew understood how the vaccine works, how it’s regulated, why it’s good to take the vaccine, and how it’s going to help us defeat COVID-19,” said Goldhammer.
Ronald Reagan’s medical and media departments teamed up to educate the crew before and during the vaccination process.
Lt. Cmdr. Dawn Stankus, the ship’s public affairs officer, and the Ronald Reagan media department, faced an interesting endeavor when asked to take somewhat intricate medical information about a new vaccine and break it down for the crew and the waterfront in a relatively simplistic way. From a broad perspective, the vaccine was still relatively new, and, obviously, Sailors had some apprehensions about the vaccine’s side effects and how receiving the vaccine would inevitably help with the ship’s, and the fleet’s, overall fight against COVID.
“The mass communication specialists on Ronald Reagan are extraordinarily creative and impressive communicators,” said Stankus. “When faced with a complex communication initiative, like the one associated with the COVID vaccine, they tackled it full on and developed a variety of useful products to assist their shipmates in their overall decision to receive the vaccine. Both doses.”
Stankus explained that the media department created a COVID-19 vaccine information booklet, posters, infographics, flyers, videos, print stories, social media posts, and even a sticker design to excite and inform the crew throughout the vaccination process.
“What made this communication campaign slightly more multifaceted than others, is the fact that the vaccine is sanctioned under an ‘Emergency Use Authorization’ and is still voluntary for military members,” said Stankus. “Informing the crew truthfully and accurately, so that they could make their own decision, was extremely important to me and my team. On Ronald Reagan we all desire for an end to this pandemic to protect the crew, our families, our partners, and our mission. Maximum vaccination participation, I truly believe, is the first step for this hope to become a reality.”
The education effort opened up a dialogue and allowed Sailors the opportunity to ask medical professionals on and off ship, as well as their chains of command, questions about the vaccine. When Sailors received the shot, they were armed with all the details necessary to understand the side effects and potential recovery time. Members of the crew understand that masks and physical distancing will still be necessary until the vaccine is proven to provide long-term protection.
“Ronald Reagan and U.S. Naval Hospital Yokosuka Sailors have administered thousands of shots to the waterfront,” said Goldhammer. “This vaccine puts us on the offense to get a jump-start on beating COVID-19, and our vaccination efforts have been incredibly successful.”
The 76 reasons
Every Sailor who has received the vaccine on Ronald Reagan has done so for a reason. Whether it’s for the hope to “return to normal,” in memory of a family member who has died from the terrible illness, or to support the mission of the U.S. Navy and the Ronald Reagan, there are many reasons why Sailors have made the choice.
For Electronics Technician (Nuclear) 2nd Class Christian Yovan, getting vaccinated was important for long-term protection.
“I got the vaccine for protection, and so I wouldn’t spread the virus to any of my friends and coworkers on watch,” said Yovan.
Aviation Boatswain’s Mate (Fuels) Airman Matthew Rolen received the second vaccination early February and emphasized the vaccine is important for family.
“I’m glad for the second shot because I’m hoping to see the results of our steps, maybe see if it will change the way we move forward,” said Rolen. “On a personal note, I’ve had people back home pass away because of COVID-19. Some family has gotten it, and they’ve gone through some issues because of it. I might be young and healthy, but I might spread it to my grandparents or my uncle, and that’s on me. I recommend everyone get it.”
Chief Machinery Repairman Fransisco Barrera explained that being vaccinated provides a peace of mind that he is doing his part in the fight against COVID-19.
“I tell people ‘you don’t really get it, until it happens to you,’” said Barrera. “You’re not going to feel it until it happens to you, and you’re going to feel it. That’s when I felt it, when I had my uncle die of COVID-19 a few months back. We might not see the [impact of the] vaccination right away, but we have to trust the scientists, and everyone who has devoted their lives to make this vaccine happen. Every day we live and serve, we’re making history, and right now everyone here [getting the shot] is making history.”
A hopeful outlook
It’s been close to one year since Ronald Reagan’s first ILI response aired over the ship’s 1MC. Reflecting on the past year, the ship’s crew faced challenges and adapted to changes like ILIs, social distancing, wearing masks and other precautions, and maintained resilience throughout this fight against COVID-19. The progress wouldn’t be possible without the teamwork of the Ronald Reagan crew, the COVID Support Team, the CRC, and U.S. Naval Hospital Yokosuka.
“We’ve employed an impressive amount of original work through this whole process,” said Goldhammer. “From the leadership efforts of every department on board, the education aspect and the formation of support teams to get our entire crew coordinated and through the vaccination process – all while still maintaining our COVID response processes – we’ve been able to expand our efforts past the ship and to the waterfront.”
Though the future of COVID-19 is uncertain, the commitment of Ronald Reagan Sailors to beat the disease is unwavering. By receiving the vaccine and maintaining the ship’s mission-readiness and crew health, the future is optimistic as the ship prepares to deploy again in the coming months. Ronald Reagan continues to lead the fight against COVID-19 in Japan and throughout the fleet.
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