The captain of an aircraft carrier is asking the U.S. Navy to step in to evacuate and isolate its crew as cases of the coronavirus have broken out among members.
In a four-page letter dated Monday and first obtained by the San Francisco Chronicle, Navy Captain Brett Crozier of the USS Theodore Roosevelt said that “decisive action” was required to prevent deaths from the coronavirus, and that the sailors on board were currently unable to comply with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines to keep them safe because of the ship’s close quarters.
Crozier wrote that “we are not at war, and therefore cannot allow a single Sailor to perish as a result of this pandemic unnecessarily.”
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Coronavirus cases were first reported on the ship last week and continued to grow, prompting the Navy to announce it would conduct testing on all of the approximately 5,000 sailors aboard.
The Navy reported last Tuesday, March 24, that three sailors had tested positive and been airlifted to a hospital in the Pacific. Five more sailors were diagnosed Wednesday and by Thursday that number had jumped to 23 sailors, according to a Defense official who was not authorized to speak publicly.
“We expect additional positive tests, and those sailors who test positive will be transported to the U.S. Naval Hospital Guam for further evaluation and treatment as necessary,” Adm. Michael Gilday, chief of naval operations, said in a statement last week in response to the reported cases.
Gilday made clear the Roosevelt remained capable of its missions. “We are confident that our aggressive response will keep USS Theodore Roosevelt able to respond to any crisis in the region,” Gilday said last week.
But Crozier stressed that there was an inordinate focus on testing for the virus, which he noted cannot stop its spread, and that more should be done to prevent the outbreak instead. Because of the ship’s conditions, Crozier said, all sailors on board must be considered to have come in close contact with the virus and should be individually isolated.
Crozier said in his letter that only a fraction of the crew had been taken off the ship, and that a group of sailors whose coronavirus tests initially did not return positive displayed symptoms within the next three days.
The letter outlines the conditions on the ship that facilitate the spread of the virus, including: the high number of sailors in a small space, shared restrooms, meals prepared and served by exposed personnel and tasks that require close contact. He wrote that the sailors needed to be placed in isolation for 14 days to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
“Due to a warship’s inherent limitations of space, we are not doing this. The spread of the disease is ongoing and accelerating,” Crozier said.
Citing an anonymous senior officer on board, the Chronicle reported that the number of positive coronavirus cases on the ship is now between 150 and 200.
Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly told CNN on Tuesday that “we don’t disagree” with Crozier, and that the Navy is “taking all the appropriate steps.”
“I heard about the letter from Capt. Crozier this morning, I know that our command organization has been aware or this for about 24 hours and we have been working actually the last seven days to move those sailors off the ship and get them into accommodations in Guam,” Modly said, noting that bed space was an issue.
A source who asked not to be named because they weren’t authorized to speak publicly told USA TODAY that the Navy is moving quickly to ensure the health and safety of the crew of the Roosevelt and is pursuing options to address the commanding officer’s concerns.
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In a phone call with reporters Tuesday, Adm. John Aquilino, Pacific Fleet commander, would not confirm the number of cases among sailors, but said the top priority is keeping them and their families safe. None of the sailors are seriously ill, he said, and the Navy is working with local officials in Guam to secure hotel rooms for isolation.
The challenge for the Navy is how to balance that priority with the need to maintain readiness for war-fighting should a crisis situation occur.
Aquilino said the number of sailors required to maintain operations would remain on the ship, and others would be rotated through 14 days of isolation, then retested before putting only healthy ones back on the ship.
Crozier requested that about 90% of the thousands of individuals aboard be moved ashore to isolate, while 10% remain to operate and sanitize the ship.
“We understand the request, we’ve been working it in advance. We continue to work it, and I’m optimistic that the additional quarantine and isolation capacity that is being discussed will be delivered shortly,” Aquilino said, but declined to answer questions about specific numbers remaining on board and being rotated out.
“Removing the majority of personnel from a deployed U.S. nuclear aircraft carrier and isolating them for two weeks may seem like an extraordinary measure,” Crozier wrote. “Keeping over 4,000 young men and women on board the TR is an unnecessary risk and breaks faith with those Sailors entrusted to our care.”
“This will require a political solution but it is the right thing to do. We are not at war. Sailors do not need to die,” Crozier said.
Aquilino said he and the ship’s captain are on the same page, but that Crozier’s disagreement Crozier’s “disagreement, or his concern, is associated with the pace that we get sailors off, not that we’re not going to get sailors off.”
Contributing: Tom Vanden Brook