Senior Pentagon official: Navy may see another coronavirus-stricken ship

Sean D. Naylor
National Security Correspondent

WASHINGTON — As the number of COVID-19 cases among the crew of the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt surged, a senior military officer warned on Thursday that the outbreak on the carrier may eventually be seen on other naval ships.

The Navy said that 416 Theodore Roosevelt sailors have tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. Those sailors constitute almost 22 percent of all COVID-19 cases in the military, and almost 70 percent of those in the Navy, according to the latest figures released by the Pentagon.

Air Force Gen. John Hyten during his confirmation hearing to be vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, July 30, 2019. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images)

The outbreak has sidelined the carrier in Guam, captured the attention of the American public and cost two officials their jobs: Capt. Brett Crozier, the ship’s commanding officer, who was relieved by former acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly for circulating too widely a memo to his chain of command expressing concern with how the Navy was responding to the outbreak; and Modly himself, who resigned Tuesday amid intense criticism of a speech he gave to the Theodore Roosevelt crew on Monday after flying 8,000 miles to Guam.

“It’s not a good idea to think that the Teddy Roosevelt is a one-of-a-kind issue,” said Air Force Gen. John Hyten, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, during a Thursday press conference. “There’s 5,000 sailors on a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. To think that it will never happen again is not a good way to plan.”

Also known as the “TR” or the “Big Stick,” the Theodore Roosevelt is one of the Navy’s 11 aircraft carriers. Nuclear powered and each capable of carrying more than 75 aircraft, the carriers are the largest warships in the world and together constitute a key part of the United States’ ability to strike targets around the globe. There are usually fewer than five deployed at any time, so even though senior Navy and Pentagon officials have said the TR could still go to war if required, the pause in the carrier’s deployment has raised questions about the threat that COVID-19 poses to military readiness generally, and to the Navy’s carrier force in particular.

Seabees coordinate transportation of sailors assigned to the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt who have tested negative for COVID-19. (U.S. Navy)

Hyten said the military is closely examining what he called “an interesting set of data” regarding the Theodore Roosevelt outbreak to glean information that could help prevent or mitigate future outbreaks that might threaten critical military capabilities. “How do we quarantine a ship before it goes out?” he said. “How do we consolidate the ship so we can operate? How do we do that on a nuclear-powered carrier? On a nuclear-powered submarine? How do we do that with our bomber force?”

The military needs to figure out how to protect the capabilities inherent across its force, including combat aircraft and intercontinental ballistic missiles, according to Hyten. “This will be a new way of doing business,” he said. “We’re adjusting to that new world as we speak today.”

At least one other Navy carrier preparing to get underway, the Nimitz in Bremerton, Wash., has reported COVID-19 cases among its crew. The Navy said Wednesday that two of the Nimitz crew had tested positive: one sailor who’d contracted the virus while visiting his family on leave and who remained with his family out of state at the Navy’s direction, and another who had been immediately removed from the carrier and isolated after experiencing COVID-19-like symptoms, but whose test results were inconclusive.

On Thursday, Hyten said that there were “a very small number of breakouts” on the Nimitz. “We’re watching that very closely before the Nimitz goes out,” he added. But when asked directly, Cmdr. Ron Flanders, a spokesman for the U.S. Naval Air Forces, which oversees carriers while they are in port, told Yahoo News that as of Thursday morning there were no confirmed cases of COVID-19 physically on the ship.

The vice chairman said that almost all of the Theodore Roosevelt’s crew of about 4,800 sailors had been tested for COVID-19. (The Navy later said 97 percent of the crew had been tested.) Of those tested, 3,170 had tested negative, 416 had tested positive and 1,164 were awaiting their results, according to Hyten. The 416 positive cases included 229 sailors who displayed no symptoms, he said.

The aircraft carrier USS Nimitz. (Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Shayne Johnson/U.S. Navy)

About 2,700 of the Big Stick’s sailors have come off the ship, according to Hyten. Because of the ship’s cramped living quarters, “the goal was to get them off that ship as fast as we can,” he said. Those that have tested positive are placed in isolation on Naval Base Guam, those who are awaiting results are in quarantine on the base, while those who have tested negative are being placed in quarantine-like status in hotels on the island, according to Lt. j.g. Rachel McMarr, a spokesperson for the Navy’s Pacific Fleet. 

Hyten praised Lourdes Aflague Leon Guerrero, the governor of Guam, for her cooperation as the military tried to find lodging for several thousand sailors on short notice (Guam has a total population of about 168,000). “We were working that before the ship even got back to port,” Hyten said.

But for the first time since the COVID-19 outbreak aboard the Theodore Roosevelt, a sailor who had tested positive required hospitalization Thursday. The sailor, who was admitted to the intensive care unit of Naval Hospital Guam, had tested positive on March 30 and was in a 14-day isolation period on Naval Base Guam, according to a Navy statement.

A medical team that checks on the sailors’ status regularly found the sailor unresponsive in his room Thursday morning, according to McMarr. “We are hoping that that sailor recovers,” Hyten said. “We’re praying for him and his family and his shipmates.”

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Click here for the latest coronavirus news and updates. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please refer to the CDC’s and WHO’s resource guides. 

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