WASHINGTON — The captain of an American aircraft carrier deployed to the Pacific Ocean has pleaded with the Pentagon for more help as a coronavirus outbreak aboard his ship continues to spread, officials said Tuesday. Military officials say dozens of sailors have been infected.
In a four-page letter, first reported by The San Francisco Chronicle Tuesday, Capt. Brett E. Crozier of the U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt laid out the dire situation unfolding aboard the warship, with more than 4,000 crew members, and what he said were the Navy’s failures to provide him with the proper resources to combat the virus by moving sailors off the vessel.
“We are not at war,” Captain Crozier wrote. “Sailors do not need to die. If we do not act now, we are failing to properly take care of our most trusted asset — our sailors.”
The carrier is currently docked in Guam.
Captain Crozier recommended offloading his entire crew, and then quarantining and testing them while the ship was professionally cleaned. But that proposal raised a series of issues, especially as housing more than 4,000 people while also isolating them would be extremely difficult on the island.
The crisis aboard the Roosevelt played out like a slow-moving disaster and highlights the dangers to the Pentagon if the coronavirus manages to infiltrate some of its most important assets, such as bomber fleets, elite Special Operations units and the talisman of American military power, aircraft carriers.
In a statement, a Navy official said that the commanding officer of the Roosevelt “alerted leadership in the Pacific Fleet on Sunday evening of continuing challenges in isolating the virus.”
“The ship’s commanding officer advocated for housing more members of the crew in facilities that allow for better isolation,” the statement said. “Navy leadership is moving quickly to take all necessary measures to ensure the health and safety of the crew of U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt, and is pursuing options to address the concerns raised by the commanding officer.”
At its core, the issue on the Roosevelt, and other warships, stems from the near impossibility of putting adequate social distance between people to stop the spread of the illness. Living quarters, hallways and doorways are cramped. Bathrooms and cafeterias are shared areas.
In his letter, Captain Crozier clearly outlined the challenge. “None of the berthing aboard a warship is appropriate for quarantine or isolation,” he wrote.
A senior Navy official on Sunday sought to play down the urgency of the situation on the Roosevelt, saying that while it was unfortunate, most of the reported symptoms at that point among the sickened sailors and other crew members had been mild.
Last week, Thomas B. Modly, the acting Navy secretary, told reporters that three cases of the virus had been reported aboard the Roosevelt, marking the first time a U.S. Navy ship had announced a coronavirus infection at sea.
Fifteen days earlier, the ship made a port call in Da Nang, Vietnam.
Mr. Modly defended the ship’s decision to dock in Vietnam despite the spread of the virus through Asia. He said that, at the time, coronavirus cases in Vietnam were less than 100 and located in the north of the country, around Hanoi. Port calls for U.S. Navy ships have since been canceled.
Maj. Gen. Jeff Taliaferro, the vice director of operations with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, acknowledged on Monday that there had been media reports about coronavirus aboard the Roosevelt. He declined to go into details for security reasons, he said.
But, echoing a line that the military has consistently taken during the course of the pandemic, General Taliaferro insisted that the Roosevelt can nonetheless perform its missions. If the Roosevelt, in Guam right now, had to sail immediately, General Taliaferro told reporters on a conference call, it was “ready to sail.”
Eric Schmitt contributed reporting.