The Navy is not going to halt deployed operations due to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Vice Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Robert Burke.
“It is true that keeping our Force healthy and safe is our absolute top priority. It is also true that our Navy needs to sustain operational readiness to defend our nation,” Burke said in a statement Tuesday evening to Navy leadership.
“Risk is the tension between these positions,” Burke said. “We will continue deployed operations, and we will continue to prepare for deployed operations.”
Burke’s comments come as the deployed aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt pulled into Guam over the weekend as cases aboard the carrier started to increase . It was a stop the Navy has said was a previously scheduled port visit.
Meanwhile, there are also cases of COVID-19 aboard the carrier Ronald Reagan, Fox News reported last week. As the fleet’s only forward-deployed carriers in the Pacific, it’s possible a situation could emerge where both U.S. aircraft carriers in the Asia Pacific region are sidelined due to the virus.
Burke said that those aboard ships and who are at risk for contracting the virus would receive testing and treatment.
“Once confronted with shipboard cases, we will segregate those exposed, test, and treat,” Burke said. “We are aggressively pursuing acquisition of new, simpler, and more plentiful testing mechanisms.”
Additionally, Burke said that he and Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael Gilday are counting on “on-scene commanders” to impose social distancing measures along with other precautions to ensure Navy operations can continue.
“Waging this war to the best of our ability is the absolute first priority of your Navy’s leadership,” Burke said. “Winning this war is about two critical elements that are part of your commander’s toolkit: risk and trust.”
Burke’s statement comes after the commanding officer of the Roosevelt, Capt. Brett Crozier, implored the Navy to provide individualized isolation for the ship’s crew as COVID-19 cases aboard the vessel increase.
In order to achieve a completely COVID-19-free Roosevelt, Crozier suggested keeping approximately 10 percent of the Roosevelt crew on board to operate the reactor plant and sanitize the ship, among other things. Meanwhile, other crew members could be individually isolated off the ship in Guam, where the Roosevelt pulled into over the weekend.
Crozier’s request was sent in a letter to Navy leadership and was published by the San Francisco Chronicle on Tuesday.
Pacific Fleet Commander Adm. John Aquilino told reporters later Tuesday that the Navy is working to address the issues Crozier raised, and said that the Navy was moving to quarantine groups of sailors for 14 days and then bring them back to the ship after they’ve been cleared from the virus.
“We understand the request,” Aquilino said. "We’ve been working it in advance, we continue to work it, and I’m optimistic that the additional quarantine and isolation capacity being discussed will be delivered shortly.”
“But there has never been an intent to take all the sailors off of that ship,” Aquilino said. “If that ship needed to respond to a crisis today, it would respond.”
The Pentagon said Wednesday that 771 service members have tested positive for COVID-19, along with 273 Department of Defense civilians, 225 dependents, and 74 contractors.
As of Wednesday morning, there have been five reported deaths of DoD-associated personnel , according to the latest Pentagon data. That include New Jersey National Guard Capt. Douglas Linn Hickok, 57, who died March 28, becoming the first service member to succumb from COVID-19.