The Navy announced Tuesday that three sailors aboard the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt in the Pacific had tested positive for COVID-19, the first confirmed cases of the disease on a Navy ship underway.
Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly told reporters in a Pentagon briefing that the three sailors were in quarantine on the carrier and being airlifted from the ship on Tuesday and flown to a Defense Department hospital. But the announcement raises the specter of one of the Navy’s most iconic vessels, a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier with more than 5,000 sailors aboard, suffering the same fate as the numerous cruise liners on which the disease spread out of control in recent months.
The Roosevelt’s most recent port call was in Danang, Vietnam, 15 days previously, according to Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael Gilday. He said Adm. Phil Davidson, head of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, allowed that visit to occur because “in late February, early March,” when he made the decision, Vietnam had only 16 confirmed COVID-19 cases and they were clustered around the capital, Hanoi, about 375 miles north of Danang. “This was a very risk-informed decision,” Gilday said.
Gilday cautioned against assuming that the three sailors contracted the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 during the port visit, noting that aircraft have flown back and forth to the carrier from land since the visit. “We took great precautions when the crew came back from that shore period to do enhanced medical screening of the crew,” Gilday said. All port visits for Navy ships are now canceled, other than when required for maintenance and resupply, in which cases sailors are “really limited to the pier, period,” he said.
The infected sailors are suffering from body aches and fever “but we wouldn’t necessarily characterize them as requiring hospitalization,” he said, but “we are rapidly removing them from the ship” and flying them to a location he would only describe as a Defense Department hospital “in the Pacific region.” Meanwhile, staff on the ship are tracing their contacts to isolate them and contain the outbreak. Gilday said he did not know how many sailors are in isolation on the carrier.
The Roosevelt’s crew are also doing the best they can to maintain social distancing, according to Gilday, who said that the Navy is weighing next steps in a deliberate, “day-to-day” fashion. “We are not in a position right now to say that we have to pull that ship in or to take that ship off the front line,” he said.
Navy Surgeon General Rear Adm. Bruce Gillingham said the Roosevelt does not have the facilities aboard to run tests for COVID-19, only to take nose or throat swabs that are then flown to a Defense Department testing facility. It was not clear when the three sailors had actually been swabbed or how long it had taken for the ship to get the results.
The three sailors on the Roosevelt are the Navy’s first confirmed COVID-19 cases aboard an active ship, but they are unlikely to be the last. “About a third of the Navy is at sea right now,” Gilday said.
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