The U.S. Navy hasn’t witnessed any significant operational impacts stemming from the omicron variant of COVID-19 — despite outbreaks like the one on the littoral combat ship Milwaukee last month, according to Navy leaders.
“We’ve had all variants on our ships, including omicron,” Vice Adm. William Merz, deputy chief of naval operations for operations, plans and strategy, told reporters Wednesday. “We have taken advantage of our operational flexibility to evaluate and ensure our approach has remained effective, and we all continue to learn and adjust.”
Omicron has a quick turn around and isn’t causing severe illness in sailors, Merz said.
“So, it’s coming and going all the time, very small numbers, and really no operational impact,” Merz said. “And the teams are just very, very attuned to watching their indications and reacting to it.”
The Milwaukee deployed to U.S. 4th Fleet in December, but was sidelined later that month at Naval Station Guantanamo Bay, Cuba due to the virus outbreak. The whole crew, just over 100 sailors, was fully vaccinated, and those infected only “exhibited mild or no symptoms,” according to the Navy. The ship got back to sea Jan. 4.
Several other ships have also had omicron cases, Merz said, but he declined to say which ones. The Navy keeps track of cases that are “almost statistically insignificant” cases, he noted, and these episodes have provided the Navy an opportunity to examine its mitigation tactics.
For example, the Navy updated its COVID-19 guidance to sailors on Jan. 15 to align with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s latest instruction, slashing the isolation period for those who test positive. That means that sailors who test positive now must isolate for five days or until symptoms have cleared, depending on which is longer. Following isolation, sailors will then wear a mask for an additional five days.
“No exit testing is required and, absent symptoms, prior positives should not be PCR tested for 90 days,” the naval administrative message said.
Those who exhibit symptoms will be tested, and those who’ve been exposed to a sailor with COVID-19 but are asymptomatic will test two to five days later if testing is available. The guidance says those exposed but asymptomatic must wear a mask for 10 days and test if symptoms develop.
In that guidance, the Navy reiterated that sailors should receive the COVID-19 booster shot, and Rear Adm. Bruce Gillingham, surgeon general of the Navy, told reporters the service hasn’t experienced resistance from sailors about getting that third shot.
The COVID-19 booster shot is still under emergency-use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration, and therefore not mandatory for sailors. However, Merz and Gillingham said they expect it to become mandatory once the booster shots receive FDA approval.
“Because all studies are converging on the need for a vaccine booster to ensure enduring protection, it has essentially become the next-shot in a series and will likely become mandatory in the near future,” the NAVADMIN said. “There is no shortage of vaccine booster doses for those eligible.”
A total of 5,035 active component and 2,960 Ready Reserve sailors remain unvaccinated, according to figures the Navy released Jan. 26. The service has approved 10 permanent medical exemptions, 259 temporary medical exemptions, and 59 administrative exemptions for active duty sailors, along with seven temporary medical exemptions and 24 administrative exemptions for Navy Reserve sailors.
No religious exemptions have been approved, although more than 4,000 active duty and Navy Reserve sailors have submitted such requests.
Additionally, the Navy has booted 45 sailors from the service for refusing the mandatory COVID-19 vaccine. That includes 23 active duty sailors and 22 entry level separations, meaning the sailors were still completing initial training periods within their first 180 days of active duty at the time of separation.
According to Merz, it’s significantly less expensive to separate a sailor than to conduct a medical evacuation due to a COVID-19 outbreak. There have been no medical evacuations for sailors since the Navy reached 100 percent vaccination among its operational units, Merz said.
Those who have a waiver or are seeking a COVID-19 vaccine exemption are transferred to a shore tour to ensure sailors in operational units are fully vaccinated.
At least 17 sailors have died due to complications from COVID-19.