Herd immunity could keep coronavirus-afflicted carriers in the fight, former Navy captain says
By SETH ROBSON | STARS AND STRIPES Published: April 1, 2020
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TOKYO — The Navy should encourage herd immunity for crews on aircraft carriers in the western Pacific, rather than quarantine sailors ashore who need to be ready for action in the South China Sea, a defense expert and former Navy warship captain said Wednesday.
The San Diego-based USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier, which has been operating in the western Pacific, diverted to Guam last week after sailors aboard tested positive for coronavirus.
Their commander, Capt. Brett Crozier, wrote to Navy leaders Monday asking that sailors be quarantined and isolated ashore. The virus has sickened 150 to 200 sailors on the ship, the San Francisco Chronicle reported, citing a senior officer who is aboard.
Adm. John Aquilino, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, said during a Wednesday morning teleconference that the Navy is working with the Guam’s governor to find places, including hotels, if possible, to quarantine and isolate the sailors up to 14 days, according to the Pacific Daily News.
Sailors would rotate back to the carrier once they are free of the virus, he said, declining to provide specific numbers of how many will stay on the Theodore Roosevelt, according to the report.
“It’s the number that’s needed for the ship to remain operational,” Aquilino said.
Theodore Roosevelt sailors who test positive are being moved off the ship and placed in isolation at Naval Base Guam for their required isolation period, Joint Region Marianas spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Rick Moore told Stars and Stripes in an email Wednesday.
“We are not going to confirm specifics about where USS Theodore Roosevelt Sailors are being quarantined or isolated on Naval Base Guam,” he said. “Medical representatives from Naval Base Guam evaluate them daily.”
The Navy will continue to work with the government of Guam and the Guam Hotel and Restaurant Association to identify lodging at several hotels for sailors from the warship, he said.
However, Jan van Tol, a former Navy captain who commanded several warships, including the Japan-based USS O’Brien and USS Essex, said it would be a mistake to quarantine most of carrier’s crew ashore.
“One needs to maintain a capital ship on deployment ready to fight at any time,” van Tol, now a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington, D.C., told Stars and Stripes via email Wednesday.
“We never know when a conflict or crisis might emerge, especially for ships deployed to [the western Pacific] these days, which remains particularly germane given the current tense U.S.-China relations.”
U.S. Naval Base Guam increased its health-protection level to Charlie on Tuesday, which indicates a substantial risk of coronavirus. The following day, Guam Gov. Leon Guerrero announced a third coronavirus death on the U.S. island territory, local broadcaster KUAM news reported.
At Yokosuka Naval Base in Japan, at least two sailors aboard the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan have tested positive for the virus, Fox News reported Saturday. The Navy hasn’t confirmed the news or released information about any other tests on the carrier, but Yokosuka went into lockdown on Saturday.
If both the Theodore Roosevelt and the Ronald Reagan were unable to fight due to quarantining, the Chinese military might seek to exploit the situation, particularly in the South China Sea, van Tol said.
“We have to consider the perceptions and reactions of outside parties if we elect to take major units out of action,” he said.
Crozier, in his letter, argued that removing most of the crew from the ship and isolating them for two weeks, although an extraordinary measure, is a necessary risk.
“It will enable the carrier and air wing to get back underway as quickly as possible while ensuring the health and safety our Sailors,” he wrote.
The coronavirus seems to have quite low lethality for young people, and many don’t even realize they’ve had it, van Tol said, adding that average age of sailors at sea is 19 to 20 years old.
The best course of action would be to “ride it out” by allowing sailors to get sick, recover and develop “herd immunity” as a crew, he said.
Herd immunity involves letting the virus spread through a population in a controlled manner to build a natural form of immunity. It’s being done in Sweden, where authorities are allowing the virus to spread slowly while sheltering the elderly and the vulnerable until much of the population becomes naturally immune or a vaccine becomes available.
However, it’s been rejected in other places where authorities are concerned about medical systems being overwhelmed, The Australian newspaper reported Wednesday.
Van Tol said both aircraft carriers should stay pier-side in Guam and Japan so that cases with serious symptoms can be moved quickly to hospitals.
The Theodore Roosevelt’s captain has a moral duty to protect his crew, van Tol added.
“However, mission readiness must come first, and for a ship deployed to [the western Pacific], that means remaining manned and ready to fight even if some of the crew are ill,” he said.