The U.S. Navy is evacuating thousands of sailors from the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt in Guam after its captain warned a coronavirus outbreak was threatening the lives of the crew.
There have been 93 COVID-19 cases discovered among the 4,800-strong Roosevelt crew so far, according to the U.S. Navy.
Pentagon officials said Wednesday they were rapidly arranging hotel rooms on the Pacific island for many of the personnel while organizing a skeleton team of uninfected sailors to keep the ship operational.
“The plan at this time is to remove as many people off the Teddy Roosevelt as we can, understanding that we have to leave a certain amount of folks on-board to perform normal watch-standing duties that keep the ship running,” Rear Adm. John Menoni, commander for the Marianas region, told reporters in Guam on Wednesday.
Speaking in Washington, acting U.S. Navy Secretary Thomas Modly said that almost 1,000 of the crew had been removed and that that number would rise to 2,700 within a couple of days, and more after that.
But they need to retain around 1,000 onboard just to maintain the vessel, as it undergoes thorough sterilization.
“We cannot and will not remove all the sailors from the ship,” Modly said.
“This ship has weapons on it, it has munitions on it, it has expensive aircraft, and has a nuclear power plant,” he said.
Earlier this week Roosevelt’s captain, Brett Crozier, told his superiors that the virus was spreading uncontrollably through the ship and called for immediate help to quarantine its crew.
The U.S. Navy on Wednesday declined to rule out punishing the captain for what was described as a scathing letter to navy leadership asking for stronger measures to control the outbreak onboard.
In a four-page letter, Crozier described a bleak situation aboard the nuclear-powered carrier as more sailors tested positive for the virus.
Sailors and their families have expressed anxiety and frustration.
The letter put the Pentagon on the defensive about whether it was doing enough to keep the warship’s 5,000 crew members safe, and alarmed the families of those aboard the vessel, whose home port is in San Diego.
“The spread of the disease is ongoing and accelerating,” Crozier wrote. “We are not at war. Sailors do not need to die.”
“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 said. “This is a necessary risk.”
As of Wednesday more than 1,400 Defense Department employees, contractors and dependents had been infected by the novel coronavirus, including 771 military personnel, the Pentagon said.
The Roosevelt’s docking in Guam on March 28 left both of the Pentagon’s western Pacific aircraft carriers in port, with the USS Ronald Reagan berthed in Japan, also reportedly suffering an unknown number of virus infections.
Modly admitted it was a challenge for U.S. forces’ defence readiness.
“Right now the Teddy Roosevelt is a frontline theatre in this new battle,” he said.
However, he added, “If the ship needs to go, if there’s a crisis, the ship can go.”
He stressed that the Roosevelt was the only U.S. Navy ship out of 94 deployed at sea that had active COVID-19 cases.
There were scattered cases in vessels that are not deployed, he added, but in each case only in the single digits.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper said that while the military was following guidance on social distancing and sanitation, Roosevelt’s plight and the broader pandemic was not eroding the U.S. military’s war-fighting abilities.
“There seems to be this narrative out there that we should just shut down the entire United States military and address the problem that way. That’s not feasible,” he said in the White House.
“We have a mission: our mission is to protect the United States of America and our people. And so we live and work in cramped quarters, whether it’s an aircraft carrier, a submarine, a tank, a bomber — it’s the nature of our business.”
Guam Gov. Lou Leon Guerrero said military officials had assured her all sailors who set foot on the island would have tested negative for the virus.
She acknowledged some locals were concerned about allowing the sailors into Guam — which has 77 confirmed COVID-19 cases, including three deaths — but said there was a “moral obligation” to help those in need.
“We ask them to go out and sacrifice their lives for our protection, they are asking us to help them get over this god-awful virus,” she said.