WASHINGTON—In response to an urgent and widely publicized plea from the commander of the USS Theodore Roosevelt, which has suffered a significant outbreak of COVID-19, the Navy began evacuating sailors off the aircraft carrier earlier this week.
The Theodore Roosevelt docked in Guam on March 27, several days ahead of schedule, to seek care for three infected sailors. By April 1, the ship had 93 identified cases.
In a lengthy letter sent to his command and published by the San Francisco Chronicle, Capt. Brett Crozier urged the Navy to take steps to address the quickly deteriorating situation by rapidly isolating the entire crew.
“In combat we are willing to take certain risks that are not acceptable in peacetime,” Crozier wrote. “However, we are not at war, and therefore cannot allow a single Sailor to perish as a result of this pandemic unnecessarily.”
In a press conference on April 1, Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly said that about 1,000 sailors had already been evacuated and that another 2,700 would be removed from the ship shortly.
In addition to the 93 positive cases, 593 sailors tested negative, Modly said. The Navy had previously committed to testing the entire crew.
Crozier challenged the focus on testing in his letter. “Testing has no direct influence on the spread of the COVID-19 virus,” he wrote. “Due to the close quarters required on a warship and current number of positive cases, every single Sailor, regardless of rank on board the TR must be considered ‘close contact’ in accordance with the NAVADMIN.”
Further, “the COVID-19 test cannot prove a Sailor does not have the virus; it can only prove that a Sailor does,” Crozier said. “As an illustration, of the first 3 TR Sailors diagnosed with COVID-19, 21% (7 of those 33) infected Sailors were negative on a COVID-19 test, then subsequently presented with symptoms of COVID-19 infection within 1-3 days post-test.”
Isolating sailors in Guam poses significant challenges. “We’ve been working the last several days to move those sailors off that ship,” said Modly. “Guam doesn’t have enough beds, so we’re looking to get some hotel space, set up some tents.”
Getting crew off the ship makes the situation onboard better for those that remain. “The more people you get off the ship, the more you can spread out those who stay on board,” said Adm. Mike Gilday, chief of naval operations. “We are in agreement with the ship’s CO that we need to get as many people off the ship as possible.”
So far, all the sailors have had mild to moderate symptoms. “None of those sailors have required hospitalization,” said Navy Surgeon General Bruce Billingham. “We believe their relative health and youth are in their favor.”
Gilday estimated that 1,000 sailors need to remain aboard the ship to ensure the safety of its equipment, which include a nuclear power plant and sophisticated weapons.
“It’s a balancing act,” said Modly. “We’re working very hard to make that balance acceptable.”
Gilday noted that the Navy has put sailors in a 14-day restricted movement quarantine before any ship gets underway for more than two months. In addition, Navy protocol now calls for ships to stay at sea at least two weeks between stops.
The Theodore Roosevelt last stopped in central Vietnam, when the bulk of the country’s 16 coronavirus cases were in the northern region. Fifteen days after departure, the first sailor fell ill.