Aircraft carrier captain pleads for help with coronavirus outbreak
The captain of a U.S. aircraft carrier stricken by the coronavirus is pleading with Navy officials for help to stem the spread of the disease aboard the ship, which is now docked in Guam.
In a memo obtained and published Tuesday by the San Francisco Chronicle, Capt. Brett Crozier, commanding officer of the USS Theodore Roosevelt, warned of dire consequences if the majority of the crew is not taken off the ship and isolated.
“This will require a political solution, but it is the right thing to do,” Crozier wrote about finding individualized lodging for crew members. “We are not at war. Sailors do not need to die. If we do not act now, we are failing to properly take care of our most trusted asset — our sailors.”
Asked by The Hill for comment on the memo, a Navy official said in a statement that Crozier “alerted leadership in the Pacific Fleet on Sunday evening of continuing challenges in isolating the virus.”
“The ship’s commanding officer advocated for housing more members of the crew in facilities that allow for better isolation,” the statement said. “Navy leadership is moving quickly to take all necessary measures to ensure the health and safety of the crew of USS Theodore Roosevelt, and is pursuing options to address the concerns raised by the commanding officer.”
In an interview with CNN on Tuesday, acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly said he heard about Crozier’s letter that morning, with Navy commanders “aware of this for about 24 hours.” Modly said the Navy is working to move sailors off the ship.
“The problem is that Guam doesn’t have enough beds right now, and so we’re having to talk to the government there to see if we can get some hotel space, create some tent-type facilities there,” Modly said.
“But we don’t disagree with the [commanding officer] on that ship, and we’re doing it in a very methodical way because it’s not the same as a cruise ship,” he continued. “I mean, that ship has armaments on it. It has aircraft on it. We have to be able to fight fires if there are fires on board the ship. We have to run a nuclear power plant.”
The Navy first confirmed positive coronavirus cases aboard the Roosevelt a week ago, and on Thursday, officials announced the ship would dock in Guam while all 4,000-plus people aboard are tested for COVID-19.
A senior officer on board the ship told the Chronicle that 150 to 200 sailors had tested positive as of Monday.
The carrier was last in port in mid-March in Danang, Vietnam. At the time, Vietnam had 16 confirmed cases of COVID-19.
Officials have previously said the coronavirus aboard the Roosevelt may not necessarily be tied to the port visit since aircraft regularly land on the ship, bringing in new people from outside the command.
In his memo, Crozier warned that if the Navy focuses on being ready for a war over stopping the spread of the virus, “there will be losses.”
Alternatively, he wrote, the Navy could work to “achieve a COVID-free TR.” That would require “strict adherence” to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines and a “methodical approach” to cleaning the ship, steps that demand “immediate and decisive action” and will take “time and money,” he added.
“As war is not imminent, we recommend pursuing the peace time end state,” he wrote.
That plan would require offloading all but about 10 percent of the crew, who would need to stay aboard to run the ship’s nuclear reactor, sanitize the ship, keep it secure and respond to any emergencies, the memo says.
Those taken off the ship will need lodging in compliance with CDC and Navy guidance, Crozier added.
Crozier wrote that it is impossible to follow guidance from the CDC or the Navy on isolating people for 14 days while on board the ship.
“Due to a warship’s inherent limitations of space, we are not doing this,” he wrote. “The spread of the disease is ongoing and accelerating.”
Berthing in the ship isn’t appropriate for quarantining and isolating, he wrote, and only one off-ship location available right now follows guidance either. Two sailors sleeping in a gym with cots have already tested positive for the virus, he said.
The Roosevelt has moved a small percentage of crew off the ship, increased frequency of cleaning and “attempted some” social distancing, Crozier said, but that will only slow the virus’s spread.
“The current plan in execution on TR will not achieve virus eradication on any timeline,” he said.
Crozier also said there is an “inappropriate focus” on testing, saying the focus right now should be on quarantine and isolation. For example, he said, seven of the first 33 sailors who have tested positive for the virus tested negative at first, only to develop symptoms one to three days later.
“Testing will only be useful as the ship returns to work after isolation or quarantine to confirm the effectiveness of the quarantine period,” he said.
Crozier compared the Roosevelt to the Diamond Princess cruise ship, where 712 out of 3,700 people eventually tested positive for the virus.
According to a study cited by Crozier, 79 percent of people on the cruise could have been infected if passengers weren’t isolated and removed. The study also found that just 76 people might have been infected if the cruise ship was evacuated earlier than it was.
“Their measures still allowed hundreds of people to become infected,” Crozier said of the cruise ship. “TR’s best-case results, given the current environment, are likely to be much worse.”
In a conference call with reporters Tuesday evening, Pacific Fleet Commander Adm. John Aquilino contended Crozier’s main issue is about “pace.” Among the issues slowing the pace of getting sailors off the ship, Aquilino cited identifying hotel rooms in Guam that work for isolation and keeping staff on the ship for essential tasks such as running the nuclear reactor.
“We’re on the same sheet of music,” Aquilino said. “And I’m really trying to make it happen more quickly, but there are some constraints that we are operating around.”
Updated at 7:41 p.m.