French seek clue to 900-plus virus cases on aircraft carrier

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The French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle arrives in the bay of Toulon, southern France, Sunday April 12, 2020. The Defense Ministry said in a statement that around 40 sailors showed symptoms compatible with COVID-19, the disease the coronavirus causes. The new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms for most people, but for some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness or death. (AP Photo/Daniel Cole)

PARIS (AP) — The French Navy is investigating how the coronavirus infected more than 900 sailors aboard the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle, now in a lengthy disinfection process since returning to its home base in Toulon five days ago.

One person remains in intensive care and some 20 others hospitalized, Navy spokesman Commander Eric Lavault said in an interview Friday.

He insisted that the commander sought to increase the physical distancing of those on the vessel — where there was no testing equipment or, for most of its three months on operations, no masks.

It is “very difficult to apply social distancing measures … on a combat vessel,” Lavault said. But “security of the crew is the first concern. A combat ship, especially an aircraft carrier, is nothing without its crew.”

A similar outbreak on the USS Theodore Roosevelt led to the firing of its captain and the resignation this month of the acting U.S. Navy secretary, in a controversy about how that at-sea crisis was handled — and that the French have been spared.

The director of the French military’s health service arm, Maryline Gygax Genero, told a parliamentary commission Friday that 940 people have tested positive so far and 645 negative among the 2,300 sailors in the aeronaval group, which included several escort vessels. Other results were not yet available.

Two of four Americans aboard the Charles de Gaulle as part of an exchange program also tested positive, a U.S. Navy statement said this week. A British sailor was aboard another vessel, Lavaux said, refusing to give his health status.

An investigation to retrace the paths of personnel in the French aeronaval group is in progress. Lavault noted that the aircraft carrier had made a call in the French port of Brest, on the Atlantic, had been in the North Sea as part of a “naval diplomacy” mission with NATO partners and had stopped in Cyprus during an operation in the eastern Mediterranean to join in the fight against the Islamic State group. Journalists had boarded the vessel at one point.

“All hypotheses are on the table,” the spokesman said.

So far, 350 crew members have been grilled about their movements on or off the vessel, according to Lavault.

With nearly 2,000 sailors on the aircraft carrier, there is a constant flow of people frequenting the infirmary. In the North Sea, temperatures sometimes dropped to -5 degrees Celsius (23 Fahrenheit), he said.

The number of infections “rose exponentially” from about April 4 to April 5, and lung scans were taken on suspected cases, Lavault said.

“It’s from this date that the commander decided to alert Navy headquarters to propose ending the operation, a decision taken immediately by the (defense) minister,” he said.

The aircraft carrier was back in its home base at the Mediterranean port of Toulon on April 12.

“We are and will be transparent” about the health situation, the health director told the parliamentary commission.

Lavault said the carrier was being cleaned top to bottom, first with high-pressure water at 60 degrees Celsius (140 Fahrenheit), then with an anti-viral product, a process that could take weeks. He said the goal is to get the carrier back to sea sometime in May.

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