13 sailors with COVID-19 accidentally cleared to return to USS Theodore Roosevelt, removed from ship after testing postive a second time

(News video from 5/6/2020)

Update: The number of sailors who tested positive for COVID-19 again is now thirteen, rising from five, according to ABC.

In an alarming development, five sailors aboard the Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier in Guam have retested positive for COVID-19 after quarantining for the disease, and have been removed from the embattled warship a second time, the Navy announced Friday.

The news raises questions about whether the massive vessel with nearly 5,000 sailors can safely return to sea. It also adds uncertainty to the broader understanding of the virus’ ability to reinfect individuals, effective quarantine requirements and the accuracy of testing.

“This is not behaving like any infectious disease I have heard of if these tests are accurate,” said John Swartzberg, a UC Berkeley infectious disease expert. “None of this makes sense.”

All five sailors had previously tested positive and were evacuated off the ship, which has been stuck in Guam since late March after the virus swept through the close quarters of the nuclear-powered carrier. They spent at least 14 days in quarantine on the island; the healthy sailors isolated in individual hotel rooms and the infected sailors together in group quarantine on the naval base. The sailors were allowed back on the Roosevelt only after testing negative twice, the tests administered at least 48 hours apart.

The Navy said those handful of sailors who retested positive this week “met rigorous recovery criteria, exceeding CDC guidelines.”

“While onboard, these five TR sailors self-monitored and adhered to the strict social distancing protocols established by the Navy,” the Navy said. “These five sailors developed influenza-like illness symptoms and did the right thing reporting to medical for evaluation. The sailors were immediately removed from the ship and placed back in isolation, their close contacts were mapped, and they are receiving the required medical care.”

A defense official said this new issue arose when one sailor, who had been asymptomatic even after testing positive and in group quarantine on the base, began to show flu-like symptoms. Contact tracing led to about 20 other sailors, and four of those tested positive. The others tested negative and were sent to Guam hotels to begin a new round of 14-day quarantine, the official said.

The ship has been docked in Guam for almost two months dealing with the outbreak. Former commanding officer Capt. Brett Crozier lost his job after sending out a memo that his crew needed to be immediately evacuated or sailors would die, a story reported exclusively by The Chronicle.

Swartzberg said the development was baffling. It meant these sailors had the virus smoldering for a longer time than expected, meaning incubation periods could be longer than two weeks. Or more likely, he said, there were false test results among the several tests given the five sailors.

“It’s very possible COVID has some more surprises for us,” he said.

Even before the Navy began cycling hundreds of sailors at a time in late April back onto the ship, some previously healthy sailors in hotel rooms began testing positive at the end of their quarantine period. The Navy started a medical study last month in conjunction with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, knowing they had a unique population to learn about how the virus works. About 300 samples were collected and results are expected next month, the Navy said.

More than 4,000 of the 4,800 crew members were evacuated from the ship, and the skeleton crew left aboard spent weeks cleaning and sanitizing the vessel. The quarantined sailors were expected to return to a clean ship.

As of Thursday, more than 2,900 sailors had reboarded the Roosevelt and about a quarter of the 1,000 who had tested positive had recovered, the Navy said.

Whatever the explanation is for these retested positives, Swartzberg said the development further complicates matters for the military.

“This is a major problem for the U.S. Navy,” he said. “Ships are a perfect breeding ground for this virus.”

Matthias Gafni is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: matthias.gafni@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @mgafni

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