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Captain of USS Theodore Roosevelt requests nearly 4,000 sailors be isolated as coronavirus spreads

A video screen grab shows Ships from the Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group, the America Expeditionary Strike Group, and the U.S. 7th Fleet command ship, USS Blue Ridge (LCC 19), transit the Philippine Sea on March 24, 2020. The Roosevelt's commanding officer, Capt. Brett Crozier, has alerted the Navy that the aircraft carrier is facing a growing outbreak of the coronavirus.

VIDEO BY ARON MONTANO/U.S. NAVY

By CAITLIN M. KENNEY | STARS AND STRIPES Published: March 31, 2020

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WASHINGTON — The captain of the USS Theodore Roosevelt has requested permission to remove most of the aircraft carrier’s crew from the ship and isolate roughly 4,000 sailors to help curtail a coronavirus outbreak aboard the vessel.

Capt. Brett Crozier wrote in an unaddressed letter Monday to Navy leadership that the ship’s environment is “most conducive to spread of the disease” with open shared sleeping areas, shared restrooms and workspaces, and confined passageways to move through on the ship. He wrote the Roosevelt’s crew is unable to follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or Navy procedures to protect the health of sailors through individual isolation on the ship for 14 or more days.

“Due to a warship's inherent limitations of space, we are not doing this. The spread of the disease is ongoing and accelerating,” Crozier wrote.

Now docked in Guam, the Roosevelt was on a scheduled deployment in the Indo-Pacific region before diverting to the island after the first several virus cases aboard the ship were reported last week.

The number of cases on the Roosevelt now is between 150 and 200 sailors, according to a San Francisco Chronicle report citing a senior officer on the aircraft carrier. Crozier’s letter was first reported by the Chronicle.

A Navy official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to Stars and Stripes about the issues raised in the letter, said Crozier had alerted leadership in U.S. Pacific Fleet on Sunday evening about ongoing challenges with stopping the spread of the coronavirus and requesting to have more of the crew in better isolation facilities.

“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,” the official said.

None of the sailors infected on the Roosevelt are in critical condition or on ventilators, Adm. John Aquilino, the commander of U.S. Pacific Fleet, told reporters Tuesday during a phone conference. He would not say how long the ship would stay in Guam or how many positive cases there are on the ship.

Aircraft carriers are central in the Defense Department’s shift in focus from fighting terrorism in the Middle East to a return to "great-power competition." In the Pacific, that means a larger focus on China, including its militarization of disputed areas of the South China Sea

Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly announced Thursday that the Roosevelt was in the process of testing 100% of the crew after more cases were found and more test kits were being flown to the ship.

Crozier wrote in his letter that a focus on testing does not stop the spread, it only proves that a sailor has the virus. Of the first 33 sailors who were found positive on the Roosevelt, seven of them tested negative and then presented symptoms within one to three days after the test, he wrote.

Crozier also pointed to a research article about the commercial cruise ship Diamond Princess that states if the passengers had been evacuated early, only 76 would have been infected instead of the 619 people who eventually were.

The cruise ship was able to isolate people more effectively than the Roosevelt can, and they still had hundreds of infections, he wrote. The Roosevelt’s “best-case results, given the current environment, are likely to be much worse,” he wrote.

Crozier requested the Navy use all available resources to find quarantine rooms for the entire crew as soon as possible.

However, the plan for the Roosevelt has never been to take everyone off the ship because of what is required to maintain and secure it, Aquilino said.

But he said he agreed with Crozier that sailors need to be quarantined, though the pace of isolating them depends on the constraints of operating an aircraft carrier.

The plan is to “take the appropriate number of people off and test, quarantine, isolate while some number is running the ship,” Aquilino said. “Once those sailors are quarantined, isolated, and retested, when they are full-up [coronavirus] free, the plan will be to rotate them back onto the ship and finish the remainder of the ship.”

Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Tuesday during an interview on CBS Evening News that the Roosevelt was not at the point in which all sailors needed to be evacuated.

“At this point in time, we are trying to make sure that we contain the virus, that we deploy testing kits, and we get a good assessment of how much of the crew is infected,” he said. “And then, of course, taking other measures to ensure that we can get the carrier up and ready again to continue its mission.”

Modly said in an interview earlier Tuesday on CNN that he had heard of the letter, and the Navy has been working for several days to move sailors off the ship. However, Guam does not have enough beds, he said, so the Navy is looking for hotel space and to create tent facilities for sailors.

“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. I mean that ship has armaments on it, it has aircraft on it … we have to run a nuclear power plant. So there’s a lot of things that we have to do on that ship that make it a little bit different and unique,” Modly said.

Crozier wrote 10% of the crew would have to stay on the Roosevelt to run the reactor plant, ensure security, and sanitize the ship. That smaller crew is to him a “necessary risk” to get the ship underway as quickly as possible and keep sailors healthy and safe. Keeping everyone on board, however, “is an unnecessary risk and breaks faith with those sailors entrusted to our care.”

“If we do not act now, we are failing to properly take care of our most trusted asset — our sailors,” he wrote.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

kenney.caitlin@stripes.com
Twitter: @caitlinmkenney

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Capt. Brett Crozier, commanding officer of the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71), addresses the crew in San Diego on Jan. 17, 2020. .
ALEXANDER WILLIAMS/U.S. NAVY