Carrier's CO Seeks to Disembark 4,000 Sailors to Avoid COVID-19 Deaths

USS Theodore Roosevelt (file image courtesy USN)

Published Mar 31, 2020 2:19 PM by The Maritime Executive

The commanding officer of the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt has written to Navy headquarters to appeal for "decisive action" to "prevent tragic outcomes" from a large-scale coronavirus outbreak on board. The San Francisco Chronicle, which broke the news Tuesday morning, reports that there are about 100 known cases of COVID-19 on board - up from three one week ago. 

Citing CDC research on the heightened risk of coronavirus transmission in the enclosed environment aboard cruise ships, Capt. B.E. Crozier warned that effective isolation of known cases and quarantine of suspected contacts aboard USS Roosevelt is impossible. "The current strategy will only slow the spread," he said. "The current plan in execution on TR will not achieve virus eradication on any timeline."

He noted that the warship's layout necessarily puts large numbers of sailors within a confined enclosure, with shared open berthing, shared heads, shared workspaces, shared mess facilities, and unavoidable close contact during watch duties and movement within passageways. "With the exceptions of a handful of senior officer staterooms, none of the berthing onboard a warship is appropriate for quarantine or isolation," he wrote. "Thousands of 'close contact' sailors require quarantine in accordance with [Navy] guidance."

Though the Roosevelt is disembarking the ill and suspected close contacts, the current shoreside accommodations in Guam may offer little by way of improvement. Two close-contact sailors in off-ship shared accommodations in an open gymnasium have tested positive, he said - a sign that group (rather than individual) quarantine may not be adequate to the task. CDC and Navy guidance calls for individual quarantine. 

"Based on data since TR's first case, approximately 21 percent of the sailors that tested negative and are currently moving into group restricted movement ashore are currently infected, will develop symptoms over the several days, and will proceed to infect the remainder of their shore-based restricted group," Capt. Crozier wrote. 

Capt. Crozier laid out two possible courses of action: 1) maximize warfighting readiness immediately and prepare to meet the fight while ill, accepting foreseeable casualties from the virus; and 2) pursue a peacetime strategy of strict adherence to CDC guidelines, preventing excess mortality by reducing sailor exposure to the virus and disinfecting the ship. This second option would require off-ship lodging for 4,000 sailors for two weeks of quarantine. 10 percent of the crew would remain aboard to run the reactor plant and conduct sanitizing efforts. 

"Keeping over 4,000 young men and women on board the TR is an unnecessary risk and breaks faith with those sailors entrusted to our care," said Capt. Crozier. "We are not at war. Sailors do not need to die."

Capt. Crozier is a naval aviator by background and a former F/A-18 pilot. He previously served as the commanding officer of the 7th Fleet flagship USS Blue Ridge and the XO of the carrier USS Ronald Reagan.