This article is co-published in conjunction with the Project on Government Oversight, a nonpartisan independent watchdog.
Update: POGO has learned that a civilian mariner who was hospitalized in critical condition died on May 22. Joseph Bondoc is the first civilian mariner to die from the coronavirus on a Military Sealift Command ship.
Late last month, barely a week after the Navy’s Military Sealift Command assured the public that the coronavirus was not spreading among civilian mariners, the virus ripped through the USNS Leroy Grumman, leaving nearly half the crew and 30 contractors infected, the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) has learned.
One mariner has been hospitalized in critical condition, while a contractor died of what his family says are complications of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. Mariners tell POGO that the ship’s leaders struggled to respond to the outbreak, potentially exacerbating the viral spread.
Pressure on the Military Sealift Command is mounting after the House Armed Services Committee expressed concerns that the measures in place were not protecting the health of the crew or the public.
Two of the highest-profile Navy outbreaks, on an aircraft carrier and a guided missile destroyer, were widely reported and infected at least 1,200 sailors. The Pentagon’s internal watchdog recently opened an investigation into the Navy’s response to outbreaks on its ships. (The inquiry will not address the Military Sealift Command’s response, according to a spokesperson for the inspector general’s office.)
The outbreak on the Grumman, docked at a shipyard in Boston, spread through the crew and to contractors in a matter of days. The entire crew has been isolated in a hotel in Boston since May 2, after 22 of the 46 crew members had tested positive for COVID-19, according to mariners who spoke with POGO on condition of anonymity.
POGO recently reported on the difficult situation facing merchant mariners who serve on Navy vessels with the Military Sealift Command. Since late March, they have been under a strict lockdown order, a so-called gangway up order, that alarmed mariners and their unions. Mariners told POGO that even as they were confined to their ships, the order inexplicably allowed contractors and other personnel to move on and off the ships, piercing the ships’ quarantine “bubble,” as it’s known in the maritime industry. A congressional committee tasked with overseeing the Navy seemed to agree.
“While we trust that Military Sealift Command is acting in good faith to protect the workforce, we have concerns about reports that military, civilian, and contractor personnel are freely allowed on and off MSC ships, diminishing the effectiveness of the bubble MSC is trying to create,” wrote Monica Matoush, Democratic spokesperson for the House Armed Services Committee, in a statement to POGO.
On top of the inquiry from the committee, Military Sealift Command is now facing an escalating labor dispute. On May 18, all three unions representing the mariners have invoked arbitration after they found the command’s response to a grievance they filed last month unsatisfactory, according to emails from the unions to their members and shared with POGO. The formal arbitration kicks off a long process that could end up in federal court. The unions contend that the gangway-up order should apply to everyone on the ships where merchant marines have been ordered to remain, and that if the command won’t change the terms of the order, then the mariners deserve additional compensation while under the order.
As part of the gangway-up order, any mariner who was on leave was immediately called back to the fleet’s dozens of ships, according to text of the order reviewed by POGO. In some cases, this meant merchant mariners flying from the relative safety of their homes to ports in cities considered hotspots and boarding ships where social distancing was impossible, mariners told POGO.
About a month after issuing the order, as the workforce became increasingly concerned, the admiral in charge of Military Sealift Command told USNI News he thought the command’s response to the coronavirus was effective.
“The evidence is we have been doing all the right things,” Admiral Michael Wettlaufer told the publication, a day after the first cases emerged on the Grumman. The admiral failed to mention those cases to USNI News, and just days later the true extent of the virus’ spread on the ship would become clear.
The mariner now in critical condition was on leave with his family near San Diego when he was recalled to the Grumman after the order. The middle-aged mariner flew to Boston, which was at the time a major hotspot for COVID-19, to work in the ship’s cramped engine room.
Weeks went by and the mariners told POGO they grew frustrated with the seemingly relaxed approach the shipyard was taking toward screening the many workers boarding the ship as it was undergoing maintenance.
Nearly a month after the mariner arrived in Boston, he began feeling sick and was feverish, according to one of his colleagues who requested anonymity, citing fears of retribution and a vindictive climate at the Military Sealift Command. On April 23, the mariner tested positive for COVID-19, the same day the shipyard notified the Grumman’s leadership that nine of its contractors had also tested positive, mariners told POGO.
The mariner’s condition worsened, landing him in the intensive care unit, where he was placed on a ventilator, according to several of his colleagues. Back on the Grumman, workers who came in close contact with him and another ill mariner were placed in quarantine in a nearby hotel.
According to mariners, work then continued on the ship, despite several crewmembers’ having raised concerns to the ship’s leadership.
After nearly all of those initially placed in quarantine tested positive, the ship’s leadership decided to quarantine the entire crew in the hotel on May 2, eight days after the first positive tests.
Since February, the Grumman has been docked at a private shipyard, run by Boston Ship Repair, for maintenance. Military Sealift Command relied on the company to screen workers as they came aboard the Grumman, but according to multiple mariners, this screening was nearly nonexistent, consisting of random infrared temperature checks and a self-reporting questionnaire.
“There was no social distancing being observed, no precautions at the gate until they started to check temperatures, no precautions being made by the shipyard workers as they often worked closely together due to the nature of the jobs being performed,” one mariner, who wished to remain anonymous, told POGO.
John Scanlon, a 60-year-old contractor working in the engine room on the Grumman, died a few days after contracting the virus, according to his family and coworkers. According to a contractor who spoke with him shortly before his death, Scanlon was concerned about the relaxed attitude of the shipyard and Military Sealift Command toward preventing the spread of the virus.
Representatives of Boston Ship Repair did not reply to questions from POGO.
As of May 18, the Navy is reporting a total of 2,940 positive cases across its workforce, including civilians.
Mariners POGO spoke with said they felt that there wasn’t a plan in place and that Military Sealift Command was being reactive rather than proactive, resulting in a wider spread of the virus among the Grumman’s crew. According to audio of a mid-May conference call between Military Sealift Command representatives and the quarantined mariners, the command is conducting a “lessons learned” review of how the Grumman’s outbreak was handled and what lessons can be applied to the rest of the fleet.
It took half the ship’s civilian crew getting infected, one person in critical condition, and a contractor’s death, but it now seems that the Navy is taking some action. According to mariners, the ship was completely vacated on May 8 for seven days, in an attempt to ensure any traces of the virus were dead. New cleaning crews will disinfect high-touch areas throughout the ship, and staggered meal hours will prevent overcrowding in the ship’s mess hall. Once each member of the crew has completed the quarantine and had two negative tests, they will return to work on the ship.
The Navy did not respond to requests for comment.
Jason Paladino can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter at @jason_paladino.