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Minimizing the spread, maximizing the mission: Norfolk Naval Shipyard continues service to the fleet during COVID-19 pandemic

By Michael Brayshaw, NNSY Lead Public Affairs Specialist | March 31, 2020


If you consider things taken for granted in 2019, lack of familiarity with the terms “coronavirus,” “social distancing,” and “minimize the spread” would have to be at the top of the list.

            As COVID-19 has come to dominate our waking moments in 2020, traveling across the oceans and now creeping through our communities, Norfolk Naval Shipyard (NNSY) has been finding ways to continue achieving its critical mission while simultaneously working to ensure employee safety and health. 

            NNSY has historically prided itself on its mission versatility, workforce availability and global scope of its work, as evidenced by the long-standing motto “Any ship, anytime, anywhere.”  Anytime has also proven true during a national emergency, as NNSY is continuing to conduct all service to the Fleet at its main location in Portsmouth.  Currently on the Portsmouth waterfront, NNSY has three vital projects that will greatly assist the Navy in three different but highly important ways.  That includes USS George H.W. Bush’s (CVN 77) most extensive work since commissioning, in the form of a Drydocking Planned Incremental Availability; USS Wyoming (SSBN 742), which is a critical piece in the country’s nuclear deterrence strategy, getting an Engineered Refueling Overhaul; and USS San Francisco (SSN 711), which is undergoing conversion to become a next-generation Moored Training Ship ensuring highly skilled and fully capable 21st century fleet operators.

The shipyard also continues to conduct mission-critical work at all its satellite locations and assisting other sites as part of the nation’s One Shipyard Concept. In the past couple weeks just in Hampton Roads, recent NNSY accomplishments at Naval Station Norfolk included completing work on USS Wasp (LHD 1), successfully conducting testing on USS New Mexico (SSN 779), and assisting work on USS Gerald Ford (CVN 78) and USS John Warner (SSN 785); and at Huntington Ingalls-Newport News Shipbuilding, restoring systems to remove cofferdams on USS Boise (SSN 764). 

            In a message to the workforce on March 29, NAVSEA Commander, Vice Admiral Tom Moore said, “You've often heard me describe NAVSEA (that's you) as the Force Behind the Fleet.  It's not just a catchy phrase.  It describes the vital national and mission essential role we play in everything the Fleet does around the world protecting our freedoms . . . [that] we are mission essential means more is expected and required of us than that of the general public. Our jobs directly impact the fleet’s ability to execute their mission.” 


            The inherent challenges working to minimize spread of COVID-19 while needing ship project team members to work in relative close proximity to one another is being addressed on several fronts at NNSY.  These are in addition to all the Department of Defense-mandated ways to prevent and minimize COVID-19 spread.  One shipyard-specific action is NNSY’s Supply Department (Code 500) taking the lead in assembling and distributing cleaning kits to the projects.  These contain paper towels, gloves, and sanitizers for cleaning high touch areas and objects such as common areas and conference rooms, and doorknobs and elevator buttons.   The shipyard is also preparing to implement screening procedures at the gates to curb the possibility of a person with COVID-19 entering the installation.  Additionally, NNSY’s Naval Facilities (NAVFAC) Public Works Department-Portsmouth has confirmed with its custodial contractor that cleaning products used at NNSY are effective at killing COVID-19.   

        To maximize social distancing, NNSY has suspended large gatherings and meetings such as Force Multiplier trainings, monthly safety flag presentations and Employee Resource Group meetings.  In their place, Shipyard Commander Captain Kai Torkelson has been filming ongoing messages for these groups as coordinated by the shipyard’s Public Affairs Office (Code 1160) and Shipyard Instruction Design Center (Code 1170). 

            NNSY’s Public Affairs Office has also been releasing daily updates to the workforce, posting constant updates to the command Facebook page, and establishing a repository of important COVID-19 information on NNSY WebCentral.  Capt. Torkelson has also been providing continual updates and messages of encouragement to the workforce.  “When you think about some of the most challenging times in our nation’s history, you saw our NNSY citizens putting service above self, making personal sacrifices to benefit the nation, and turning individual contributions into high-performing teams that changed the course of our history,” said Torkelson.  “I’m already seeing similar instances with our workforce, with employees finding innovative ways to continue the job, with teams doubling efforts to support critical work, and with workers remaining ready around the clock to support our mission.” 

            During this crisis, similar messages continue to be communicating from the highest levels of Navy leadership.  Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly said, “Our sacred calling is to defend our nation. Let our adversaries beware and our allies take heed: We are ready for anything. There is no doubt that America will, as we always have done, emerge stronger when this crisis finally passes. We in the naval profession have a special obligation to think around the corner of COVID-19 towards the broader challenges that we may face as this century evolves, while at the same time doing our utmost to operate safely, train effectively, and learn continuously.”