Throughout the coronavirus crisis, the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Bremerton, one of Washington state’s largest industrial facilities, has operated without interruption.
But challenges presented by the pandemic have forced the sprawling shipyard that maintains, modernizes and retires the Navy’s vast fleet to make significant adjustments.
By late March, more than 2,000 workers — 15 percent of the 14,000 people employed at the shipyard — were teleworking from home to help flatten the state’s curve of COVID-19 cases. Others over 65 years of age or with underlying health conditions were allowed to take paid leave.
Now some of those people deemed allowable to work under federal health guidelines have begun returning to the shipyard, starting on Wednesday, said spokeswoman Meghan Henderson.
In the interim there was a major change that they and others working on site now face: The Navy is no longer publicly disclosing the number of coronavirus infections at any individual facility, including the Bremerton shipyard. The Navy says the policy change is aimed at protecting national security.
Before that change, the shipyard had reported that one worker had contracted COVID-19 but hadn’t been at work since March 10, Henderson said.
The Navy will still continue to publish total combined cases for all its installations. As of April 1, the Navy reported 334 total cases with 19 people hospitalized and no deaths. The reported cases include 243 military members, 39 civilians, 33 dependents and 19 contractors.
“Our workforce remains charged with our mission to get our ships and submarines back out to the operational Navy,” Henderson said.
She said the shipyard has created ways to inform the workforce about the change in policy and answer any questions.
Some workers have expressed concerns they will be left in the dark about potential clusters of coronavirus in the workplace, the Kitsap Sun reported, without identifying any employees by name. No public outcry has emerged, however.
Bremerton Mayor Greg Wheeler said that as a Navy veteran, “I understand the importance of protecting national security. I also am extremely proud of the work that so many are doing in the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard to prepare and protect our nation during this critical time.”
But he‘s concerned as well about the spread of the coronavirus at a time when health officials are continuing to trace more positive COVID-19 cases, so “I also urge the shipyard to balance that need and do all it can to publicly ease concerns of Bremerton residents.”
Henderson said that while the shipyard could no longer post news of individual cases, the response to new infections will not change.
“Our shipyard procedures for handling a positive case remain the same in regard to ensuring self-isolation, cleanliness of workspaces and notification of any personnel that have close, personal contact with the positive individual,” she said.
In a statement, Department of Defense Press Secretary Alyssa Farah said the Pentagon needed to balance operational security and openness.
“In keeping with our commitment to transparency, we will assiduously continue to make the public aware of the presence of any potential new COVID-19 outbreaks within our base communities,” she said, “Base commanders are instructed to continue to work with local community health officials to share information on base community cases.”