USS Theodore Roosevelt captain calls for immediate removal of sailors over coronavirus outbreak

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The aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71) in the Philippine Sea on March 18, 2020. (Petty Officer 3rd Class Nicholas V. Huynh / U.S. Navy)

Washington (CBS) — The captain of the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt sent an urgent memo to the Navy on Monday asking for help in addressing the spread of the coronavirus among his ship’s crew.

Captain Brett Crozier wrote that “[d]ecisive action is required now” to comply with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines and “prevent tragic outcomes.”

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In a four-page unaddressed letter, Crozier suggested most of the 4,000 crew members should be removed from the ship and put into 14-day individual quarantines, in keeping with the CDC’s recommended guidelines for preventing infection. Ten percent would stay onboard to sanitize the carrier and run the reactor, which he called a “necessary risk.” In peacetime, he argued it was the right thing to do.

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“We are not at war. Sailors do not need to die,” he wrote. “If we do not act now, we are failing to take care of our most trusted asset — our Sailors.”

In the letter, which was first reported by the San Francisco Chronicle, Crozier told the Navy that the close quarters on the warship mean that sailors cannot follow proper guidelines for quarantine and social distancing. The carrier is currently docked in Guam, and at least 33 crew members have been diagnosed with COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the virus.

“The spread of the disease is ongoing and accelerating,” he wrote.

He pointed out the inherent limitations of tests for the virus, which he said cannot definitively prove someone isn’t carrying it. Crozier said that of the 33 sailors first diagnosed with COVID-19, seven tested negative, but within three days were showing symptoms of infection. Those sailors, he pointed out, would end up infecting other sailors because they were reintegrated into group quarantine sites after initially testing negative.

When the first sailors tested positive last week, the immediate suspect was a highly publicized port call the Roosevelt had made in Danang, Vietnam, 15 days before the first positive test, the chief of Naval Operations said last week in a briefing with reporters. When the Navy made the decision to let the Roosevelt go ahead with the port call, there were 16 reported cases of COVID-19 in Vietnam, all of them north of Hanoi, which is north of Danang. Whether that port call is the culprit is a matter of debate, since people were flying off and onto the carrier after it left port.

Crozier identified the elements onboard and in on-shore accommodations that pose a COVID-19 threat to sailors: their confined quarters and workspaces, open berthing, shared meals with large numbers of crew, consistent close contact and movement around the ship that requires close contact with people who have been exposed to the virus.

With increased cleaning and the removal of some — but not most — sailors from the ship, Crozier said they could only slow the spread of the virus, not eradicate it. 

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