U.S. Navy Reservists Lead 5th Fleet Pandemic Response Efforts

By U.S. Naval Forces Central Command Public Affairs | August 13, 2020


Early this year, as the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) began to make headlines around the world, U.S. Naval Forces Central Command (NAVCENT), headquartered in Bahrain, assembled a team to assess and mitigate the possible impacts of the pandemic on the U.S. 5th Fleet.

The unpredictability and rapidly changing nature of COVID-19 presented NAVCENT leadership with a challenge. How could they quickly begin to track, assess, and attack the spread of the virus while still accomplishing the full scope of U.S. and coalition operations in the region?

The answer was to bring in a group of highly skilled reservists to staff a COVID-19 operational planning team (OPT) and watch floor, tasked with developing and executing a response plan.

The team, led by NAVCENT Vice Commander, U.S. Navy Reserve Rear Adm. Rodney P. DeWalt, got to work immediately.

Because of the short-term assignments they typically fill, reservists do not always stand watch or establish watch routines for unprecedented worldwide pandemics. As one example of new operational duties, the OPT managed the arrival process of all service members, families and employees arriving in Bahrain, where COVID-19 testing is mandatory for all new arrivals and 14-days of restriction of movement (ROM).

The OPT oversaw every aspect from the moment of arrival at the local airport, to housing, providing three meals per day, laundry, and transportation for a retesting in order to exit ROM. The reserve team accounted for these and other factors while establishing and manning the watch floor.

“Our team has worked day and night to stay ahead of the virus and in this regard, their efforts to date have paid off,” said DeWalt. “The biggest challenges COVID-19 presents to NAVCENT, and everyone for that matter, are the rapid-fire changes in policy to be implemented immediately across a wide area of operations as we learn and respond to the virus’ behavior.”

In response to the complex and constantly-changing circumstances, the team acted swiftly to implement mitigation measures such as mandatory face coverings and modified watch schedules. The reserve team helped put in place and communicate new policies for cleaning and socially distancing in office spaces.

“Our initial response started in late February and, in many ways, helped to shape the Navy and Department of Defense’s response plans,” said U.S. Navy Reserve Capt. Marcus Camacho, NAVCENT/5th Fleet safety officer and officer in charge of the COVID-19 watch floor. “Our implementation of mitigations and protocols contributed to NAVCENT maintaining a ready force.”

These mitigation measures have specifically helped to ensure all major ships and units in the 5th Fleet area of operations have been able to complete operational tasking during the pandemic.

Several reservists, including Camacho, were also fulfilling other duties and responsibilities unrelated to the pandemic response. Lt. Gabrielle Groom for example, a member of the COVID-19 watch team, also served full time as an intelligence officer on the NAVCENT staff.

U.S. Navy Reserve personnel continue to staff the COVID-19 OPT and watch floor, from their highest leadership positions to action officers executing daily taskings. Their expertise from a diverse range of civilian career fields remains invaluable in maintaining NAVCENT’s success in combating the virus.

“Solving these challenges required a program management mentality and approach akin to those the private sector faces daily, making reservists the right people for the job,” said Camacho. “Leveraging our reservists’ program management and data analysis skill sets, we were able to create tools and processes to support all the operational activities being asked of the COVID-19 OPT and watch floor.”

Camacho also noted the need to constantly provide up-to-date data to higher headquarters in order to track the virus’ impact, and how reserve personnel leveraged their skills to collect and organize it. The COVID-19 watch floor director, Lt. Merilee Hatfield, used her civilian program management experience to develop the tracking tools necessary to meet these requirements.

For example, the team tracked any service member, family member, civilian employee and contractor in the NAVCENT family who experienced symptoms or tested positive. In addition to setting up communications efforts to gather this vital information, reserve team members were able to assess how the mitigation measures impacted the number of infected.

These planning and analytical efforts allowed NAVCENT’s preventive medicine team to quickly and effectively execute mitigation measures throughout the fleet.

“The quick assimilation of these strategies is a testament to the adaptability of our forces,” said Cmdr. Marion Gregg, a U.S. Navy preventive medicine physician and NAVCENT’s preventive medicine augment team leader.

As the pandemic continues, NAVCENT’s reserve-led response team has no plan to slow down mitigation efforts.

“We will continue to keep the safety and well-being of our personnel and their families first and foremost as we remain ready to meet operational challenges throughout this region,” said DeWalt.