Hospital Corpsman 1st Class Ernesto Santa Ana, right, and Hospital Corpsman 2nd Class Maria F. Potts-Szoke work in Naval Medical Research Center's mobile laboratory aboard USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71). (U.S. Navy/MCSN Kaylianna Genier)

SOUTH CHINA SEA - Members of Navy Forward-Deployed Preventive Medicine Units (FDPMU) and Naval Medical Research Center (NMRC) embarked several 7th Fleet ships March 14 to help combat the risk of and provide laboratory batch testing for COVID-19 aboard the ships.

Teams are embarked on the amphibious assault ship USS America (LHA 6), the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71), the U.S. 7th Fleet flagship USS Blue Ridge (LCC 19) and have the ability to batch test Sailors onboard who present with influenza-like illness symptoms, instead of only sending samples to be tested ashore.

This capability provides early-warning surveillance for the medical teams to be able to identify if a COVID-19 case is onboard a ship, but does not individually diagnose Sailors. If a batch were to test positive for COVID-19, the medical teams would take additional measures, such as isolating the Sailors whose samples were in the batch, and depending on the Sailor’s symptoms, potentially medically evacuating them off the ship to a shore facility for testing.

To date, no cases of COVID-19 have been diagnosed aboard any U.S. 7th Fleet Navy vessel.

“The team here in 7th Fleet has taken COVID-19 seriously from the beginning and has many public health measures already in place,” said Capt. Christine Sears, U.S. 7th Fleet surgeon. “The FDPMU and NMRC augmentation teams provide additional depth in our ability to combat this virus.”

Teams embarked the ships to provide at-sea testing and to ensure the U.S. 7th Fleet operating forces are ready to combat a possible outbreak while maintaining mission readiness. The teams provide additional capabilities in addition to the U.S. 7th Fleet’s isolation procedures.

The teams are comprised of a variety of specialized Navy Medicine personnel to ensure force health protection of the fleet, and may include: a microbiologist, medical laboratory technician, preventive medicine officer, preventive medicine technician.

“As a medical service corps microbiology officer, this embark gives us the chance to demonstrate some of our skillsets to the fleet, and what we bring to the fight,” said Lt. Cmdr. Rebecca Pavlicek, Blue Ridge COVID-19 testing team lead. “This capability allows us, the Navy, to protect mission readiness and protection of our Sailors.”

To ensuring force health protection of the fleet, other medical specialties or logistical components can be scaled up or down to meet mission specific requirements in the mitigation, health surveillance, and casualty prevention.

“This is the most advanced laboratory capability that Navy Medicine has placed forward deployed,” said Lt. Cmdr. Danett Bishop, leader and microbiologist for the preventative medicine team aboard America. “We can make force health decisions in real time, enhancing the health of the crew while minimizing any potential outbreak of COVID-19.”

The FDPMU teams aboard the USS America and the USS Blue Ridge are from Navy Environmental Preventative Medicine Unit 6 based out of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and work to facilitate and educate using preventive medicine practices and provide additional laboratory capabilities. The team embarked with USS Theodore Roosevelt is assigned to the Naval Medical Research Center based in Silver Spring, Maryland.

Currently, the teams are only authorized to perform surveillance testing and not individual testing. This means that the results cannot be linked to a particular patient for diagnostics, but would enable the team to detect COVID-19’s presence on the ship based off of the results.

“Since we are performing surveillance testing, the results of COVID-19 present, or not present can help inform the force health protection posture and provide valuable insight for the senior medical officer and outbreak response team,” said Pavlicek.

The teams are equipped with two testing capabilities, including the BioFire Film Array and the Step One RT-PCR System. The BioFire Film Array will test for a dozen different respiratory diseases, while the Step One RT-PCR System allow for complex COVID-19 tests at sea, if necessary.

As the U.S. Navy's largest forward-deployed fleet, 7th Fleet operates roughly 50-70 ships and submarines and 140 aircraft with approximately 20,000 Sailors.

Lt. Cmdr. Danett Bishop tests respiratory samples in the biological safety lab of amphibious assault ship USS America (LHA 6). (U.S. Navy/MCSN Jonathan Berlier)

Lt. Cmdr. Rebecca Pavlicek, and Hospital Corpsman Gian Molina, both assigned to Navy Environmental Preventive Medicine Unit 6 and embarked aboard 7th Fleet flagship USS Blue Ridge (LCC 19), test samples in a BioFire Film Array, which will test for nearly 30 different diseases. (U.S. Navy/MC1 Leonard Adams)