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 dated Monday, first reported by The San Francisco Chronicle on Tuesday, Capt. Brett E. Crozier laid out the dire situation unfolding aboard the warship, the Theodore Roosevelt, which has more than 4,000 crew members. He described 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.
Thomas B. Modly, the acting Navy secretary, told CNN in an interview that the Navy was working to move sailors off the ship — but that there were not enough beds in Guam to accommodate the entire crew.
“We’re having to talk to the government there to see if we can get some hotel space, create some tent-type facilities there,” Mr. Modly said. “We’re doing it in a very methodical way because it’s not the same as a cruise ship.”
In his letter, Captain Crozier had recommended offloading his entire crew, and then quarantining and testing them while the ship was professionally cleaned.
The problem aboard the Roosevelt highlights a central dilemma facing the military: Top officials, who have spent years placing readiness to fight the next war as a top priority, are now finding that maintaining that readiness during a pandemic can endanger the health, and even the lives, of service members. At the same time that Americans are being told to stay at home and practice “social distancing” in public, many service members are instead being told to continue doing their jobs.
The mixed messages have emerged across the armed services. Last week, the Army ordered a halt to most training, exercises and nonessential activities that require troops to be in close contact, but abruptly reversed itself days later, even as the infection rate in the American military rose. Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper has insisted that the armed forces find a way to protect troops from the rampaging virus while performing the military’s essential operations.
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 among people to stop the spread of the illness. The enormous ship, about 20 stories high, is its own city, but one with an extremely dense population.
Life aboard the Roosevelt means learning to live on top of other people: Many of the berths where sailors sleep include bunk beds. Hallways and doorways are cramped. Bathrooms and cafeterias are shared areas. Low ceilings and narrow, ladderlike stairwells that require the use of hands to maneuver up and down all contribute to an ever-present opportunity to spread the virus.
The flight deck of the Roosevelt, on the other hand, is enormous. The Navy likes to describe its carriers as five acres of sovereign territory. But the Navy imposes strict limits on how many people can be on the flight deck at any time.
Navy officials have acknowledged the dangers that ships pose during an outbreak of an infectious disease. As the world has seen with cruise ships, viruses can spread with frightening ease aboard these vessels. That is one reason Navy officials have been doing all they can to keep the hospital ship Comfort virus-free during its current mission in New York, where it is taking patients with other medical problems to relieve hospitals overrun by coronavirus patients.
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 among the sickened sailors and other crew members had been mild.
Mr. Modly, the acting Navy secretary, defended the ship’s decision to have made a port call in Da Nang, Vietnam, despite the spread of the virus across Asia. He said that, at the time, coronavirus cases in Vietnam numbered fewer than 100 and were in the north of the country, around Hanoi. Port calls for Navy ships have since been canceled.
Maj. Gen. Jeff Taliaferro, the vice director for operations with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, acknowledged on Monday that there had been news reports about the 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 pandemic, General Taliaferro insisted that the Roosevelt could nonetheless perform its missions. If the Roosevelt had to sail immediately, he told reporters on a conference call, it was “ready to sail.”
Eric Schmitt contributed reporting.