Navy sends replacement sailors to USS Essex after crew members catch COVID-19

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So many sailors fell ill with COVID-19 on board the amphibious assault ship Essex during its recent stint at sea that the Navy had to send fresh troops to the ship to help man key watch stations, a member of the crew told the Union-Tribune.

Naval Surface Forces Pacific, headquartered in San Diego, declined to comment on how many sailors on board the Essex were affected by the outbreak but confirmed some of what the sailor, who asked to remain anonymous, told the newspaper.

“Personnel assigned to the Essex Amphibious Ready Group (ARG)/5th Marine Regiment have tested positive for Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19),” said Cmdr. Nicole Schwegman, a Navy spokeswoman, in a statement. “Sometimes, in order to meet manning and training requirements, we cross deck Sailors, operationally hold prospective losses, utilize reservists, or divert prospective gain Sailors to higher priority units.”

Many of the sailors affected by the outbreak work in the ship’s engineering department, the sailor said. The replacement sailors — many of them assigned to the amphibious assault ship Bonhomme Richard, which was devastated by fire in July and is scheduled to be scrapped — were brought aboard via a U.S. Navy hovercraft, commonly called an LCAC.

A Navy official who spoke on background said four sailors from the Bonhomme Richard were sent to the Essex.

The Essex left San Diego early in December with a contingent of Marines from 1st Battalion, 5th Marines out of Camp Pendleton for Operation Steel Knight/Dawn Blitz, an annual training exercise. Officials with the 1st Marine Division did not immediately respond to a request for comment but one Marine official, not authorized to comment publicly, said a small number of Marines from 1/5 were also affected by the outbreak.

The Essex returned to San Diego on Monday.

While the Navy, and every branch of the military, have not released region-specific coronavirus numbers since the pandemic’s earliest days, sporadic reports of outbreaks on ships and among local personnel illustrate the challenges of maintaining operations as the number of virus cases in the community soar.

In a November message to the fleet, the Navy said that virus rates among the sailors “are generally the same as the rates of infection in the local area.” The latest published Navy numbers show 1,281 sailors Navy-wide tested positive for the coronavirus this week. Almost 7,700 sailors have tested positive for the virus since the beginning of November, which is about 40 percent of the Navy’s total number of cases since the start of the pandemic.

One in six active-duty Navy sailors is based in San Diego County, according to a 2019 study. Applying that ratio to the service’s total active cases suggests about 500 San Diego sailors could be positive for COVID-19.

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