Truman Carrier Strike Group Will Stay at Sea to Avoid COVID-19 Infections

April 13, 2020 1:55 PM - Updated: April 13, 2020 7:09 PM
USS Harry S. Truman (CVN 75) transits the Arabian Sea on March 4, 2020. US Navy Photo

The Harry S. Truman Carrier Strike Group is done with its deployment but will remain at sea off the East Coast of the United States, in an effort to keep the crew healthy from the COVID-19 pandemic and ready to take on missions if needed.

Though the strike group has already conducted two deployments in a row without a major maintenance period, the Truman CSG is now the only on-call carrier strike group on the East Coast and must remain ready if needed, U.S. 2nd Fleet said in a statement. That means keeping the COVID-19 virus from finding its way aboard the ship.

“The ship is entering a period in which it needs to be ready to respond and deploy at any time,” 2nd Fleet Commander Vice Adm. Andrew Lewis said in the statement.
“Normally we can do that pier-side, but in the face of COVID-19, we need to protect our most valuable asset, our people, by keeping the ship out to sea.”

During this time, the strike group will go through advanced training scenarios, similar to the pre-deployment Composite Training Unit Exercise (COMPTUEX) that serves as a graduation exercise before the strike group is certified to deploy, Lewis said during a call today with reporters. This covers the whole spectrum of warfare areas a CSG could encounter during a deployment, and Lewis said it was important for the ship crews and the carrier air wing to go through this training again after a deployment that focused on a handful of skills rather than the whole range of operations. Lewis said there could be opportunities to enhance this training with partnership engagements, but he would not elaborate further.

He did not elaborate on the timeline for keeping the carrier strike group out at sea, but he said there was a plan with decision points along the way that would involve leadership above his level. He vowed that sailors and their families would be kept in the loop every step along the way and said the next check-in would occur in about three weeks.

“After completing a successful deployment we would love nothing more than to be reunited with our friends and families,” Rear Adm. Andrew Loiselle, commander of Carrier Strike Group 8, said in the news release.
“We recognize that these are unique circumstances and the responsible thing to do is to ensure we are able to answer our nation’s call while ensuring the health and safety of our sailors. We thank you for your continued love and support as we remain focus on this important mission.”

Loiselle told reporters that typically there would be a decline in morale if a ship’s deployment were extended, but he said that hasn’t been the case this time. The sailors have seen news from back home about the devastation the virus has caused, and it’s easier for the crew to understand the need to stay healthy and ready compared to other deployment extensions caused by geopolitical considerations.

Lewis closed the media briefing by saying that “the intent of this is to communicate with the families and to make sure that we are being completely transparent with the families on what we’re doing. To reiterate, this is an incredibly dynamic situation we’re in, more dynamic than it is day to day – and it’s pretty darn dynamic in the Navy coming back from deployment anyway. But the situation is very dynamic now, and I will restate again that in approximately three weeks we’re going to communicate again directly with the families.”

The Truman CSG’s surface ships deployed in early September as a surface action group – made up of Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyers USS Lassen (DDG-82), USS Farragut (DDG-99) and USS Forrest Sherman (DDG-98), and Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser USS Normandy (CG-60) – with USS Harry S. Truman (CVN-75) deploying in late November after emergent maintenance. The CSG spent much of its deployment in the North Arabian Sea, at times one of two carrier strike groups in the area meant to serve as a check on Iran.

The news of the Truman CSG staying at sea to avoid the global pandemic comes on the same day the Navy announced a sailor on another carrier, USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71), died of the disease. The sailor, who has not yet been named, was found unresponsive and taken to intensive care four days before dying at the military medical facility on Guam. Theodore Roosevelt pulled into port in Guam in late March and has been there since, as sailors are evacuated from the ship, tested for COVID-19 and put in quarantine to get the crew back to health.

Navy leadership originally said it was unclear whether the virus first infected the crew from its last port call in Vietnam or through other people coming and going from the carrier for resupply, passenger movements and other activities that typically happen while operating at sea. The Navy put an end to port calls – except those needed for resupply or maintenance that couldn’t occur at sea – as a precaution.

Loiselle said the Harry S. Truman Carrier Strike Group’s precautionary steps began weeks ago, when the strike group was still operating in U.S. 5th Fleet.

“Coronavirus started while we were in 5th Fleet area of operations, so in order to mitigate it, the first thing we did was shut off our passenger flow back from the United States so we would remove that vector,” he told reporters in a call today.

When aircraft did have to land on a strike group ship to bring supplies, parts or mail, Loiselle said the aircrew were not allowed to leave their aircraft or have any interactions with CSG crew members.

“We gave them a boxed lunch and sent them on their way,” he said, noting the same procedure will be in place as the strike group operates in the Atlantic in the coming weeks.

Additionally, Loiselle said the Navy worked with leadership at 5th Fleet, the U.S. Embassy in Egypt and the Suez Canal Authority “to find different and innovative ways to go through the Suez Canal while still accounting for security requirements and the pilots that have to embark our vessels.”

For instance, it would normally take five pilot exchanges to get the strike group ships cleared and through the canal, but that was cut down to two. For the pilots who did have to come aboard U.S. Navy ships to assist with the transit, they were all screened for the coronavirus ahead of time, were outfitted with masks and gloves, and were given segregated areas on the ships’ bridges to stand in to limit any ability to spread germs. Any ship crewmembers who were on the bridge at that time were also told to wear masks and gloves.

Loiselle said it had been 42 days since the strike group stopped in a port, and it had been more than 14 days since the Suez Canal transit, which was the last time anyone outside the CSG crew came onboard any of the ships. With zero reports of any COVID-like symptoms, “we are confident in the fact that it is not aboard any of the vessels in the Harry S. Truman Carrier Strike Group.”

As a further precaution during the time operating off the East Coast, Loiselle explained that all supplies coming to the strike group will come out of Naval Station Norfolk – which is taking extra precautions on the waterfront to limit the spread of the disease – and would be packaged in cardboard containers, on which the virus can only live for about 24 hours. Cargo will be sent by ship, meaning it will take a few days to arrive, and by that point any accidental contamination wouldn’t be a concern any longer.

Lewis said during the call that it’s possible personnel may have to fly out to the ships at some point to provide technical support, if any maintenance issues arise that cannot be dealt with by the ships’ maintenance crews alone or with video teleconference support. If that were to be the case, only technicians who had been in a 14-day quarantine would be allowed to fly out to the strike group ships, to ensure the virus was not introduced that way.

Megan Eckstein

Megan Eckstein

Megan Eckstein is the former deputy editor for USNI News.

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