The CDC and US Navy study reveals common symptoms and suggests best protective measures to prevent spread in enclosed environments that clinical labs and pathology groups could use to protect their staff members

Results from a study conducted by the US Navy and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) of sailors onboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt during the recent COVID-19 outbreak aboard the ship may be useful for pathologists and clinical laboratory managers. The study also provides public health and infectious disease specialists with an opportunity to learn more about how the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus spreads in enclosed environments.

The aircraft carrier garnered headlines in April due to a widespread outbreak of the coronavirus among its crew. The investigators asked crewmembers to complete a questionnaire and provide samples for a serological antibody test and molecular diagnostics test, reported the Navy’s Bureau of Medicine and Surgery (BUMED). The goal was to learn more about the disease and how it spreads in high-density environments. The COVID-19 tests were conducted April 20-24 while the ship was docked in Guam.

The CDC published the results on June 12 in its “Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.”

An Early Picture of Infection in Young People

“This study paints a picture of current and prior SARS-CoV-2 infection among young adults living in close quarters,” said the study’s lead author Dan Payne, PhD, an epidemiologist at the CDC, in the BUMED statement. “This data will contribute to understanding COVID-19 in the US military, as well as among young adults in other close communal environments.”

Participation in the study was voluntary. At the time of testing, a total of 1,417 service members were still on the ship or at the base in Guam, the researchers wrote in their study. Among them, 383 crewmembers agreed to complete the survey and provide a blood sample for an enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) antibody test. Out of that group, 267 also provided nasal swab samples for a reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) molecular diagnostic test.

A clinical laboratory team from the Naval Hospital Guam and the Navy and Marine Corps Public Health Center are seen above collecting surveys, nasal swabs, and blood samples from sailors assigned to the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71) during the investigation into the COVID-19 outbreak in April. The ship’s medical leaders established an emergency command center, initiated a roving and deep cleaning team, and continually educated the crew on social distancing and proper protective procedures and behaviors, to mitigate the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus. (Photo copyright: US Navy.)

The questionnaire sought information about sailors’ demographic factors, health history, symptoms, and preventive behaviors, such as mask wearing and physical distancing. Crewmembers who tested positive for reactive antibodies received an additional test to detect presence of neutralizing antibodies that inhibit the virus.

The median age of participants was 30 years. About 75% were male. Only 28 (7.3%) reported comorbidities such as a history of asthma, diabetes, hypertension, or immunosuppression, which are considered risk factors for developing serious cases of the COVID-19 disease.

Key findings of the CDC/Navy’s study:

  • 228 participants (59.7%) tested positive for reactive antibodies. Of those, 135 (59.2%) tested positive for neutralizing antibodies.
  • 235 participants had previously tested positive in a SARS-CoV-2 diagnostic test. Of those, 212 (90.2%) tested positive for reactive antibodies.
  • A total of 238 participants had a previous or current SARS-CoV-2 infection. Of these, 18.5% reported no symptoms.
  • Of the 194 sailors who reported symptoms, 115 (59.3%) sought medical care, and two were hospitalized.
  • The most frequently reported symptoms were headache (66.5%), loss of taste or smell or both (61.3%); myalgia (56.2%); runny nose (55.7%); and fatigue (55.2%).
  • The most effective preventive measures were avoidance of common areas, increased physical distancing, and use of face coverings.

“What we saw was that most of the infections were actually mild, in addition to those that were asymptomatic,” Payne told reporters after the study was published, reported CNN. “And this is perhaps different from studies of older Americans, or maybe even those who were hospitalized already, and certainly much different from those with underlying health conditions.”

But with the high number of asymptomatic cases, “symptom-based surveillance might not detect all infections,” noted the researchers, who cautioned that “the analysis was conducted on a convenience sample of persons who might have had a higher likelihood of exposure, and all information was based on self-report, raising the possibility of selection and recall biases.”

In January, the crew of the Roosevelt totaled about 4,800 sailors, reported Defense One. However, after docking in Guam, many sailors were moved to hotel rooms for quarantine. As of May 5, at least 1,156 crewmembers had tested positive for infection, Stars and Stripes reported, and one had died.

Sailors aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt were examined prior to reboarding the ship following off-ship quarantine or isolation. Only those found to be negative for the coronavirus, were allowed to board the ship. (Photo copyright: US Navy.)

Impact of COVID-19 on the USS Theodore Roosevelt’s Crew

As of April 6, 172 crew members had tested positive for COVID-19, including the ship’s captain Brett Crozier. At that time, 61% of the crew had received clinical laboratory testing and 1,999 sailors had been moved off the ship into quarantine, reported Defense One. By the next day, 270 sailors tested positive, a 57% increase from the previous day.

By April 14, 589 crew members were diagnosed positive for COVID-19. With 92% of the crew tested, 3,922 were found to be negative for the infection. Nevertheless, 4,024 sailors—nearly 83% of the crew—were moved into isolation quarters off-ship to prevent spread of the coronavirus.

In their study, the Navy/CDC researchers concluded: “In this convenience sample of young, healthy US service members experiencing close contact aboard an aircraft carrier, those with previous or current SARS-CoV-2 infection experienced mild illness overall, and nearly 20% were asymptomatic. Approximately one third of participants reported fever, myalgia, and chills and had higher odds of SARS-CoV-2 infection than did persons who reported cough and shortness of breath. Participants reporting anosmia (loss of sense of smell) or ageusia (loss of sense of taste) had 10 times the odds of having infection, compared with those who did not.

“In this sample of intensely exposed subjects, assessed at a single point in time, results demonstrated that antibodies developed and that, at the time of specimen collection, many of these were neutralizing antibodies. … This is a promising indicator of immunity, and in several participants, neutralizing antibodies were still detectable >40 days after symptom onset. Ongoing studies assessing the humoral antibody response over time will aid the interpretation of serologic results in an outbreak investigation such as this.

“These results provide new indications of symptomatology of SARS-CoV-2 infections and serologic responses among a cohort of young US adults living in a congregate environment and contribute to a better understanding of COVID-19 epidemiology in the US military. The findings reinforce the importance of nonpharmaceutical interventions such as wearing a face covering, avoiding common areas, and observing social distancing to lower risk for infection in similar congregate living settings.”

Not all the specific lessons learned from this COVID-19 outbreak aboard a US Navy vessel will be applicable to clinical laboratories and anatomic pathology groups. Nevertheless, it is probable that the data gleaned from the CDC/Navy study aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt will someday mean civilian Americans can count on improved responses to disease outbreaks from the nation’s testing laboratories.

—Stephen Beale

Related Information:

SARS-CoV-2 Infections and Serologic Responses from a Sample of U.S. Navy Service Members — USS Theodore Roosevelt, April 2020

Navy Investigation Finds 60 Percent of USS Theodore Roosevelt Volunteers Have COVID-19 Antibodies

New Study of USS Theodore Roosevelt Sailors Reveals How Coronavirus Affects Young, Healthy Adults

What the USS Roosevelt Can Teach Us about COVID-19 Spread

Sick Sailors Recovering on Guam Will Fly Home Rather than Rejoin USS Theodore Roosevelt

13 USS Roosevelt Sailors Test Positive for COVID-19, Again

CDC Study: Lower COVID-19 Infection Rate for TR Sailors Who Wore Face Coverings and Social Distanced

Findings from USS Theodore Roosevelt Public Health Investigation Support Force Health Protection

Theodore Roosevelt Sailors Volunteer to Support Public Health Outbreak Investigation

Outbreak Investigation Aboard US Aircraft Carrier May Contain Clues about COVID-19 Among the Young and Healthy

After Outbreak on Carrier Roosevelt, Many Have Antibodies

Navy Ship Outbreak Shows Most Young Aren’t Spared COVID Symptoms

We Still Don’t Fully Understand the Label ‘Asymptomatic’

Clinical and Immunological Assessment of Asymptomatic SARS-CoV-2 Infections