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How do you keep spirits afloat among the crew of a coronavirus-stricken aircraft carrier facing social distancing and quarantine?
The USO is aiming to boost the morale of hundreds of sailors from the USS Theodore Roosevelt as they self-isolate in Guam following the COVID-19 outbreak on the vessel.
From old-fashioned care packages that need to be meticulously sanitized to providing Internet access for quarantined sailors, the USO is adapting to the situation as the country strives to overcome the pandemic, according to Alan Reyes, the nonprofit’s chief operating officer and a rear admiral in the Navy Reserve.
“In a quarantine situation, there isn’t a whole lot of face-to-face things go on,” Reyes told Fox News. “So much is happening digitally.”
The carrier has faced a severe impact from virus, with more than 400 confirmed cases among crew members as of Thursday, its captain relieved of command — and the acting secretary of the Navy’s resignation over his handling of that dismissal.
So the crew could benefit from some of what the USO has to offer.
Care packages are broken down by hand, sanitized by a small team working in a warehouse and then re-packed before being delivered to the sailors. (Courtesy of USO)
Celebrity visits are now being conducted online, Reyes said. Care packages are broken down by hand, sanitized by a small team working in a warehouse and then re-packed before being delivered to the sailors.
And the USO has set up Wi-Fi hotspots so that self-isolating crew members can use their devices to keep in touch with friends and family without having to pay for overseas smartphone plans.
“Connectivity is the big thing that we do,” Reyes said, noting that amid the coronavirus crisis, “everyone is more disconnected than ever physically.”
So providing connectivity can range from installing landlines and computer desks at Internet centers, like in the aftermath of 9/11, or it can mean setting up Wi-Fi infrastructure on the fly and even helping deployed soldiers make video calls for life events they can’t make it back home to see in person.
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“Like society, through the years it’s all shifted to Wi-Fi and cellphones,” Reyes said.
The response in Guam came about in part because of the USO’s close relationship with the Department of Defense. Its teams are embedded at military facilities around the world and have a firsthand view of what service members need at each location.
Movie packs provided by the USO for troops in Guam. (Courtesy of USO)
With thousands of sailors disembarking from the USS Theodore Roosevelt and the local facilities not equipped to provide them all with toiletries, Internet access and other needs, the USO saw where it could help, Reyes said.
It has more than 250 facilities around the world dedicated to showing support from back home for American military personnel.
The nonprofit organization has spent decades finding ways to support service members at home and abroad, including by flying celebrities out to military bases for concerts and other events.
But as the nature of the entertainment industry changes, so does the USO’s approach.
Care packages destined for crew members of the USS Theodore Roosevelt. (Courtesy of USO)
For example, musicians now rely more on the revenue they earn doing live performances than from album sales, Reyes noted. That means they may have less time to dedicate to making extended tours of military locations. Amid the social isolation push, the USO has been setting up virtual performances, as well as more intimate celebrity appearances where service members can speak with them one-on-one online.
Those solutions will likely remain in the USO’s toolbox after the coronavirus crisis passes.
“That old adage that necessity is the mother of invention is completely on point for us right now,” Reyes said. “Even after the COVID-19 pandemic subsides, we’ll still look for ways to employ technology to connect our service members and their families back here to home.”
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