13 Sailors Who Recovered From COVID-19 Test Positive Again

Medical staff from Naval Hospital Guam administer a COVID-19 swab test to a member of the USS Theodore Roosevelt's crew, April 23 (USN)

Published May 17, 2020 1:14 AM by The Maritime Executive

The crew of the carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt began reboarding their ship on April 29 after weeks in quarantine, but there may now be a new challenge. The U.S. Navy said in a statement Saturday that five crewmembers who had recovered fully from COVID-19 and tested negative (twice) have now developed symptoms and tested positive again. 

"These five Sailors developed influenza-like illness symptoms and did the right thing reporting to medical for evaluation," the Navy said. Eight other recovered sailors tested positive for coronavirus again without showing symptoms, according to NPR. 

These 13 "relapsed" individuals have been disembarked and placed in isolation. An additional number of sailors who came into contact with them were also transferred to shore for retesting and quarantine. 

The USS Roosevelt experienced a COVID-19 outbreak after calling at Danang in early March. The number of cases on board grew rapidly, and she returned to the naval base at Guam on March 27 and disembarked the majority of her crew for quarantine and testing. Out of about 4,800 people on board, about 1,100 (as of April 30) contracted the novel coronavirus. 

The concern about "relapsed" patients follows other unusual test patterns seen in the USS Theodore Roosevelt outbreak response. In late April, tests administered to Roosevelt sailors at the end of a 14-day shoreside quarantine period continued to return some positive results, according to the Navy, leading officials to reevaluate their "assessment of how the virus can remain active in an asymptomatic host." Plans for reboarding were delayed for an additional week in order to account for adjusted testing requirements.

The phenomenon of coronavirus re-infection or re-emergence among recovered patients is not yet well understood. Hundreds of cases have been reported in South Korea, with many more in Japan and China. According to Korean health experts, it is likely that the "reinfection" is simply a false positive test result caused by dead and inactive virus fragments that are still present in recovered patients. In this view, any renewed influenza-like symptoms in a "relapsed" patient would be attributable to a second non-COVID illness. 

So far, Korean authorities have not identified any examples of a recovered patient spreading COVID-19 to others, which indicates that the "relapsed" individuals are not contagious. In addition, culture tests of samples taken from these individuals have come back negative, indicating little or no viable virus.