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Five NOAA hurricane hunter crew members test positive for coronavirus in Lakeland

The five employees who tested positive were last in the Lakeland facility between June 3 and June 8.

LAKELAND — Five employees of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Hurricane Hunter team tested positive for coronavirus.

Jonathan Shannon, a spokesman for the reconnaissance base at Lakeland Linder International Airport, said in a media release that the five employees at the center tested positive for COVID-19 on Friday. It is unclear how the temporary loss of employees will affect future hurricane missions.

The Atlantic hurricane season began June 1.

The hurricane hunter plane flies into hurricanes and other tropical systems to gather weather forecasting and scientific data. The information helps the National Hurricane Center make predictions about a storm’s strength and potential path.

Related: Latest hurricane season forecast: ‘It’s expected to be a busy one’

Shannon said that the base had been adhering to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s coronavirus guidelines, including social distancing and working from home when possible. But flights began in recent weeks to monitor one of the first major storms of the season, Tropical Storm Cristobal, which formed on June 1 and didn’t dissipate until June 11.

Shannon said that the five employees who tested positive were last in the Lakeland facility between June 3 and June 8.

"Hurricane hunter aircraft are flying with the minimum number of crew members necessary to conduct missions and we have increased the cleaning of aircraft pre- and post-flight,” Shannon told the Orlando Sentinel. “Our medical officer is closely monitoring the health and wellness of flight crews and support personnel in accordance with CDC guidelines.”

Several other employees who made contact with the five employees have been asked to self-quarantine for 14 days, Shannon said. The work areas of the five employees have been thoroughly cleaned.

The infections come at the beginning of what is expected to be a busy hurricane season — there have been three named storms so far this month. NOAA’s latest projection, released on May 21, called for 13 to 19 named storms, with six to 10 of those reaching hurricane status.

A summary infographic showing hurricane season probability and numbers of named storms predicted from NOAA's 2020 Atlantic Hurricane Season Outlook. [ National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration ]

There were no tropical systems in the Atlantic or Gulf of Mexico as of Tuesday afternoon.

“It’s expected to be a busy one,” said Gerry Bell, NOAA’s lead hurricane forecaster, in May. “We’re not seeing anything that would indicate a likelihood for a below-average season."

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