Recent reports out of France say that more than 1,000 sailors aboard the country’s aircraft carrier, Charles de Gaulle, have tested positive for COVID-19, a number that could continue to surge as the crew awaits approximately 930 more test results.
The outbreak onboard the French navy’s flagship forced leadership to call off the remaining two weeks of the carrier’s scheduled deployment to the North Atlantic. The ship, which carries a crew of nearly 1,800, pulled into port last week at Toulon Naval Base in southern France.
In all, 1,081 crew members from the Charles de Gaulle naval group have tested positive for the novel coronavirus. That total comes almost entirely from the carrier, and includes at least two U.S. sailors who were assigned to the ship as part of the U.S. Navy’s Personnel Exchange Program.
The American sailors have since been removed from the ship and “are receiving excellent host nation medical care at French facilities,” Navy officials said. The declining health of one French sailor, meanwhile, necessitated a transfer to the intensive care unit.
Partially complicating the early detection process onboard Charles de Gaulle was the rate of asymptomatic carriers. Of the confirmed cases, nearly half showed no symptoms, according to a New York Times report.
Additionally, masks were not made available until late in the ship’s deployment. This, coupled with a mid-March stop in the port city of Brest in which sailors disembarked and visited bars and restaurants — prior to the mandated national lockdown ordered by French President Emmanuel Macron — is believed to have accelerated the virus’ spread throughout the ship’s tight quarters.
The debilitating spread of the virus onboard Charles de Gaulle, France’s lone carrier, has sparked concern about the nation’s ability to remain ready to fight.
Unlike the U.S. Navy, which touts 10 other active carriers in addition to the coronavirus-stricken Theodore Roosevelt, losing the Charles de Gaulle for an extended period could cripple France’s nuclear deterrence capabilities, the Times report said.
That vulnerability has ignited criticism of how the ship’s commanding officer could have better prepared the ship and its 1,800-person crew in the weeks leading up to the outbreak.
With over 1,000 confirmed cases — nearly 60 percent of the ship’s crew — the Charles de Gaulle has now far surpassed the infection rate and total of the outbreak onboard the 4,800-person carrier Roosevelt.
As of Monday, 678 Roosevelt sailors have tested positive for COVID-19. Personnel from U.S. Naval Hospital Guam, where the ship has been ported since March 27, have tested 94 percent of the total crew.
Eight sailors have been hospitalized, with one requiring a move to the ICU “for increased observation due to shortness of breath,” officials said.
Chief Aviation Ordnanceman Charles Robert Thacker, Jr., 41, died April 13 at U.S. Naval Hospital Guam due to COVID-19 complications.
Thacker was moved to the ICU on April 9 after being found unresponsive by other quarantined sailors. He is the first Theodore Roosevelt sailor to succumb to the virus.
Navy officials would not specify whether Thacker had any preexisting medical conditions that made him more susceptible to the virus.
Jon Simkins is a writer and editor for Military Times, and a USMC veteran.