A majority of the sailors assigned to the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt who have tested positive for COVID-19 — at least 350 crew members — are asymptomatic, according to Secretary of Defense Mark Esper.
“What we’ve found of the 600 or so that have been infected, what’s disconcerting is a majority of those, 350 plus, are asymptomatic,” Esper said in an interview with the “Today Show” on Thursday. “So it has revealed a new dynamic of this virus that it can be carried by normal, healthy people who have no idea whatsoever that they are carrying it.”
“So we’re learning a lesson there, and making sure that we communicate that to our broader force and we take every precaution we can to keep our force healthy and ready,” Esper said.
Despite being sidelined in Guam, the Roosevelt still could head out to sea and perform its “wartime mission” if needed, Esper said. He predicted the Roosevelt would do so soon, joining the other 90 Navy ships at sea who haven’t experienced COVID-19 outbreaks.
“They've had no problems, completely ready, conducting their wartime mission today,” Esper said. “This was a special case. We're going to get it behind us. And I'm sure that T.R. will be back to sea soon, performing its important wartime mission.”
Additionally, Esper didn’t eliminate the possibility that the Roosevelt’s former commanding officer, Capt. Brett Crozier, could be reinstated to his post. Crozier was relieved of duty after he begged the Navy to boost its response to the COVID-19 outbreak aboard the 4,800-person ship in a letter that was obtained by the San Francisco Chronicle.
“I’ve got to keep an open mind with regard to everything,” Esper said Thursday, noting that the investigation into the incident concluded last week.
COVID-19 cases aboard the Roosevelt have continued to rise since March 24 when the first sailors tested positive, and the Navy announced Monday that a 41-year-old chief petty officer from the ship had died from complications stemming from coronavirus after he was admitted to the ICU at U.S. Naval Hospital Guam last week.
Since then, four more sailors have also been hospitalized, according to the Navy.
Altogether, the Navy says a total of 615 sailors from the Roosevelt have tested positive for COVID-19 as of Wednesday.
Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal reports that the Navy is growing more confident the outbreak on the vessel originated from the ship’s flight operations — not a port visit to Vietnam between March 4 to 9.
Given that the first COVID-19 case aboard the Roosevelt didn’t emerge until after the two-week incubation period for the virus, the timeline indicates that sailors were infected due to cargo flights making deliveries aboard the ship, per the Journal. Furthermore, crew members assigned to the Roosevelt’s air wing were the first to test positive for COVID-19, officials told the Journal.
Days after the first cases were reported aboard the Roosevelt, Crozier pressed the Navy to stop the spread of the virus among the crew by offloading most of them on shore in Guam where the ship had pulled into port. He said those on shore should receive individualized isolation, and the fraction of the crew that remained on the Roosevelt could operate the reactor plant and perform sanitization, among other things.
In response, the Navy has evacuated approximately 85 percent of carrier’s crew, Navy Times previously reported.
But the letter came with consequences for Crozier. Then-Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly said the letter made its way up Crozier’s immediate chain of command over a non-secure email, and was copied to 20 to 30 additional recipients. The skipper was relieved of duty on April 2.
The episode also came at a price for Modly, who reportedly took a $243,151.65 flight to Guam to talk to sailors on the Roosevelt, according to cost estimates the Navy provided the Washington Post.
During Modly’s trip, he told sailors that Crozier had either intentionally leaked the letter or was “too naïve or too stupid to be a commanding officer of a ship like this.” Modly stepped down from his post after lawmakers on Capitol Hill pushed for his resignation.
While the Navy hasn’t experienced a similar outbreak on other vessels, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. John Hyten warned the virus could strike another Navy ship next.
“It’s not a good idea to think that the Teddy Roosevelt is a one-of-a-kind issue,” Hyten told reporters April 9. “We have too many ships at sea.”
“To think that it will never happen again is not a good way to plan,” Hyten said.