On Monday it was announced that the U.S. Navy has ordered sailors on leave in China to return immediately, and that those sailors who had been in China will be isolated for 14 days as precautionary measure due to the outbreak of the highly infectious coronavirus. Pacific Fleet Commander Admiral Chris Aquilino ordered the measure to his commanders and it coincides with an Indo-Pacific Command statement that has now banned all nonessential travel to mainland China.

All Department of Defense (DoD) personnel that were in China on temporary duty or on leave are ordered to depart China immediately.

Sailors returning from China will be assessed within 24 hours and will have daily checks for a variety of symptoms that include fever, sore throat, coughing or notable difficulty in breathing. Anyone who shows any symptoms is ordered to notify their commanders and report to their respective medical departments.

“As a service we inherently work in close quarters in our operational units, and our personnel are the primary resource for all our platforms,” Aquilino was quoted by Stars and Stripes. “If you have active duty personnel on leave in China, ensure they return as soon as possible. Any active duty personnel returning from China shall be kept separate from their unit for a period of 14 days, starting from day of departure from China.”

In addition, the Admiral has ordered the screening of all U.S. Navy personnel on leave as a precaution in case they have been exposed to the virus.

Sailors who live aboard ship or who live with others will be provided temporary lodging off ship. Identified sailors were ordered to avoid public areas, gyms and close contact with others during the 14-day observation period.

Sailors may return to their units following the quarantine period after clearance from medical personnel.

The highly infectious coronavirus originated in the Chinese city of Wuhan, where it has infected more than 20,000 people. Experts have expressed concerns that the highly transmissible disease could become a pandemic. While addressing the Chinese Politburo, President Xi Jinping announced on Tuesday a “people’s war of prevention of the epidemic.”


Lessons From History

The close proximity of sailors and soldiers can allow infectious diseases to spread quickly. Just over a century ago the Spanish flu, along with accompanying pneumonia, sickened 20% to 40% of the U.S. Army and Navy personnel. The high morbidity rates impacted the induction and training schedules in the United States and essentially rendered hundreds of thousands of military personnel non-effective.

It was the worst epidemic in American history, but war and disease have been linked together throughout history. However, the impact of the influenza outbreak was so great in 1918-19 that more American soldiers, sailors and Marines died from it than on the industrialized battlefields in Europe.

It has been thought that the outbreak’s ground zero may have been at Fort Riley, Kansas but other sources suggest the flu originated in East Asia.

“It is pretty well certain now that (the Spanish Flu) didn’t start at Fort Riley/Camp Funston, but that the large training camp there served as a vehicle for spreading it,” Doran Cart, senior curator of the National World War I Museum and Memorial, told ClearanceJobs.

“Some scholars have traced potential origins to China,” Cart added. “The term ‘Spanish Influenza’ came from the Spanish newspapers which were not censored being neutral so when they reported the Influenza Epidemic, other news sources equated it with Spain.”

Regardless of where it began, the fact remains that the Spanish flu infected 500 million people around the world, including those on remote Pacific islands and in the Arctic. The death toll has been estimated to have been around 50 million, but some sources believe it could have been as high as 100 million – roughly 3-5% of the world’s population at the time.

The flu was able to spread so rapidly due to the fact that the major powers of the world were fighting in the First World War – with campaigns occurring not only in Europe but in remote parts of Africa and the Middle East.


Stopping a Pandemic

The U.S. Navy’s efforts have been seen as very proactive, but given how readily an infectious disease could spread it is likely the right course of action.

“The U.S. Navy is trying to be consistent with the U.S. travel ban to China,” explained Courtney Gidengil, MD MPH, senior physician policy researcher at the RAND Corporation.

“If you came from mainland China as a civilian you have to undergo quarantine for 14 days, so the Navy is asking sailors to behave very much the same way,” Gidengil told ClearanceJobs. “This is still a self-imposed quarantine, but it is consistent with the others we’ve seen.”

The fact that sailors are being taken off ship is also likely a good move to keep it from spreading amongst the crew.

“We’re seeing that those showing signs of the illness are being reasonably quarantined to a room,” added Gidengil. “Such quarantines are important anywhere that there are people living in close conditions. It can be hard to keep areas disinfected. Right now we’re seeing completely reasonable efforts.”

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Peter Suciu is a freelance writer who covers business technology and cyber security. He currently lives in Michigan and can be reached at petersuciu@gmail.com. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.