The commander of USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71) asked U.S. Pacific Fleet leadership to take his crew off his carrier and send them all into quarantine ashore on Guam, as a COVID-19 outbreak on the carrier spreads at an accelerating rate, according to a Monday letter obtained by USNI News.
Capt. Brett Crozier wrote Pacific Fleet leadership asking for more resources to effectively isolate his crew and fight the virus, a Navy official who verified the authenticity of the letter USNI News on Tuesday. Contents of the letter were first reported by The San Francisco Chronicle on Tuesday. Last week the carrier was sent pier-side to Guam after three sailors tested positive for COIVD-19 and were shipped to a nearby hospital.
The ship was sent pier-side to test sailors and isolate those who were infected from the rest of the crew.
“No one on the crew will be allowed to leave anywhere into Guam other than on pier-side. And we are already starting the process of testing 100 percent of the crew to ensure that we’ve got that contained,” Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly told reporters last week.
Since then, the crew has been isolated to the pier and kept separate from the rest of the military and civilian population on the island while the testing continued. Crozier said from their experiences the testing and isolation regime has been ineffective due to tight quarters on the ship.
“Testing has no direct influence on the spread of the COVID-19 virus. It merely confirms the presence of the virus. Due to the close quarters required on a warship and the current number of positive cases, every single Sailor, regardless of rank, onboard the TR must be considered ‘close contact’ in accordance with the [Navy guidance],” he wrote. “Testing will only be useful as the ship returns to work after isolation or quarantine to confirm the effectiveness of the quarantine period. Our focus now must be on quarantine and isolation in strict compliance with CDC and [Navy] guidance.”
In his letter, Crozier presented two scenarios to leaders, one in which the 4,000 sailors of the carrier would remain at sea, fight sick and suffer losses from the virus. It’s unclear how many sailor are infected with reports ranging from 30 to close to 100.
“We go to war with the force we have and fight sick. We never achieve a COVID free TR,” he wrote.
“There will be losses to the virus.”
The second was to pause the operations of the carrier, quarantine sailors and disinfect the ship with a skeleton crew aboard to maintain the nuclear reactor and essential systems.
“[This] requires strict adherence to CDC guidelines and a methodical approach to achieve a clean ship,” Crozier wrote.
“A clean ship is required. Every sailor onboard must be guaranteed virus-free and the ship environment must be disinfected. One infected sailor introduced to the ship will spread the virus. Off ship lodging in compliance with CDC and [Navy] guidance is required for over 4,000 sailors to achieve a clean ship and crew.”
Croizer wrote that is was impossible to keep the crew healthy with its current protocols.
“Based on CDC guidelines and TR observations, the only effective method to preserve an individual’s health is total isolation for 14+ days in accordance with the NAVADMIN (i.e. Individual hotel/barracks rooms with separate heads). Due to a warship’s inherent limitations of space, we are not doing this. The spread of the disease is ongoing and accelerating,” he wrote.
“With the exceptions of a handful of senior officer staterooms, none of the berthing onboard a warship is appropriate for quarantine or isolation. Thousands of close contact sailors require quarantine in accordance with guidance. TR has begun to move personnel off ship into shore-based group restricted movement locations. Of the off-ship locations currently available, only one complies with the [Navy] guidance. Infected sailors reside in these off-ship locations. Two sailors have already tested positive in an open bay gymnasium equipped with cots. Although marginally better than a warship, group quarantine sites are not a solution and are not in accordance with current guidance.”
It’s unclear if Guam has the space to absorb the crew of the carrier. According to the Guam Visitors Bureau, the island has 8,860 hotel rooms.
Modly said today during a CNN interview that “we don’t disagree with that CO of the ship” about the need to get sailors off the ship and into individual rooms for quarantine, though he expressed worries that there weren’t enough rooms available on the island to do so in accordance with health officials’ recommendations.
He said the Navy was working to meet the needs of the carrier – ideally, Modly said, that would involve bringing all the sailors off the ship, sending back a small team of essential personnel to operate the reactor after verifying those personnel did not have the virus, and then waiting out the quarantine period for the rest of the sailors.
A Navy official also told USNI News that the service was working to address the concerns.
“The commanding officer of Theodore Roosevelt alerted leadership in the Pacific Fleet on Sunday evening of continuing challenges in isolating the virus,” the Navy official said.
“The ship’s commanding officer advocated for housing more members of the crew in facilities that allow for better isolation. 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.”
While Theodore Roosevelt is at the pier, the rest of the strike group has remained underway, a Navy official told USNI News. As of this posting, it’s unclear if the embarked Carrier Air Wing 11 is still aboard the ship. The core crew of an aircraft carrier is about 4,000. With the air wing, that number rises to more than 5,000.
While the Navy is unsure where the virus came from, the carrier had made a port visit to Vietnam along with guided-missile cruiser USS Bunker Hill (CG-52) in late February and early March. USNI News understands that three sailors came into contact with a person who later tested positive for COVID-19. However, Navy leaders stressed last week that the ship received several visitors on and off the ship during the same period. U.S. Pacific Fleet commander Adm. John Aquilino also was part of the delegation that traveled to Vietnam for the port visit in Da Nang. He told USNI News last week he and his travel team have not shown symptoms for COVID-19 and had not been tested.
In his letter, Crozier said that without changes to how the ship was handling the outbreak, Theodore Roosevelt could suffer a fate similar to the Diamond Princess cruise ship.
“The current strategy will only slow the spread. The current plan in execution on TR will not achieve virus eradication on any timeline,” Crozier wrote.
“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.”