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‘People are scared’: COVID-19 outbreak rattles crew of the warship Chafee

The U.S. warship Chafee pulled into San Diego from Hawaii for training last Saturday and has been grappling with a COVID-19 outbreak that sailors onboard and internal documents obtained by Navy Times suggest is decimating the crew.

U.S. 3rd Fleet officials confirmed Wednesday that some Chafee personnel had tested positive for the coronavirus, but declined to say how many cases had emerged among the guided-missile destroyer’s crew, citing Pentagon policy for not specifying such numbers.

“The ship remains able to meet its mission,” Cmdr. Sean Robertson said in an email Wednesday. “No Chafee sailors have been hospitalized and all positives are in isolation.”

But two petty officers aboard the ship tell Navy Times that dozens of sailors have been removed in recent days after either testing positive or coming in close contact with those who have.

A page from the ship’s “ROM Personnel Tracker” document obtained by Navy Times Wednesday shows 41 sailors listed as having either tested positive or been in close contact with infected shipmates out of a crew of about 350.

ROM is mil-speak for “Restriction of Movement,” the term for when service members quarantine for COVID-related reasons.

Eleven of those listed sailors are culinary specialists.

The sailors on the ROM Personnel Tracker list are being housed in barracks and a local Navy Gateway Inn, according to the document.

Navy Times obtained a single page of the multi-page list, which contains sailors from several ranks and ratings.

One petty officer who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution said in a message to Navy Times that several of the ship’s cooks tested positive for COVID-19 while the ship was transiting from Hawaii to San Diego, and that the galley has been closed for roughly a week as a result.

“Before pulling into San Diego we had seven people in quarantine and three tested positive, all the cooks that come into contact with the whole crew,” the petty officer said.

Another petty officer who also requested anonymity for fear of retribution said COVID cases have since spread to the information technology division, weapons department and engineering.

“I’ve had a few conversations with the engineers and at this point people are scared we won’t be able to get back to Hawaii based on the command and most likely Big Navy pushing us to certify,” the petty officer said. “Myself included.”

“No one is giving us information,” the petty officer added.

The sailors also questioned why the entire ship wasn’t getting tested for COVID.

Third Fleet spokesman Robertson told Navy Times Thursday that “there is no plan to test the entire crew at this time.”

But according to a ship schedule obtained by Navy Times, “all hands antigen testing” was scheduled for Chafee sailors on the pier from 8:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. on Saturday, the day the warship pulled into San Diego.

A photo sent to Navy Times by a sailor aboard the warship Chafee shows that the crew was slated for
A photo sent to Navy Times by a sailor aboard the warship Chafee shows that the crew was slated for "all hands antigen testing" after arriving in San Diego Saturday. But several sources on the ship say the crew wasn't all tested. (Photo provided to Navy Times)

Robertson did not respond to emailed questions about whether ship-wide COVID testing had been cancelled, or why.

“While some of the crew have been tested, there is no plan to test the entire crew at this time,” he said.

One petty officer said several sailors believe the entire crew wasn’t tested Saturday because the higher ups “only care about SWATT,” an acronym for the Navy’s Surface Warfare Advanced Tactical Training that brought them to San Diego.

“After they canceled the all-hands testing, we knew they didn’t want to deal with it,” the petty officer said.

One petty officer reported a shortage of N95 masks onboard, as well.

The petty officer told Navy Times that “a lot of people end up using the N95 more than once or risk getting chewed out or worse because the ship just can’t get them fast enough.”

Some sailors have had to wear a single, increasingly dirty N95 mask for five days, according to one petty officer, and some shipmates are having a hard time breathing through that mask and an additional mandated cloth mask while working, according to the petty officer.

“We have asked for more (N95 masks), but they don’t have enough,” the petty officer said. “When we kick back, we are either told to wear the dirty mask or face (non-judicial punishment).”

Sailors aboard the U.S. warship Chafee say there is a shortage of N95 masks onboard and that the crew often must wear the same soiled mask for days on end. A Chafee sailor sent Navy Times this photo of their re-used and dirty N95. (Photo provided to Navy Times)
Sailors aboard the U.S. warship Chafee say there is a shortage of N95 masks onboard and that the crew often must wear the same soiled mask for days on end. A Chafee sailor sent Navy Times this photo of their re-used and dirty N95. (Photo provided to Navy Times)

Robertson disputed in an email Thursday any shortage of N95s or other protective gear aboard Chafee.

“USS Chafee has an adequate supply of personal protective equipment and continues to maintain protective measures for its crew,” he said in an email.

But one petty officer noted that, with hundreds of sailors on board, rules limiting close contact are “a moot point.”

The petty officer said the crew has been provided subpar food since the galley was closed, and many sailors have taken to ordering delivery.

“Our galley has been shut down for over a week and food is being delivered to the ship, but it’s freezing cold and the meal hours are all out of whack because of it,” one petty officer said.

Robertson said Thursday that food was being delivered to the ship via base galley, and that “there has been no interruption in food service.”

The gym has been closed, sailors aren’t allowed to go on the pier and there have been threats that the smoking area will be shut down, too, according to the petty officer.

“The morale is like nothing I’ve ever seen on board,” the petty officer added. “Sailors on board are just defeated and don’t know what to do.”

The other petty officer said they are worried about their junior sailors.

“Dealing with these horrible living conditions, it’s questionable what type of effect it’ll have on their mental state and their retention in the Navy,” the sailor said.

That petty officer is also eyeing the exit.

“I don’t have answers for my junior sailors,” the petty officer said. “And if I can’t help them or find them help, I feel like I failed them, and I’m no longer needed.”

“Everybody was panicking” after the culinary specialists were infected, according to the petty officer.

“We come in close contact with them every day and the test would have told us who is sick and who wasn’t,” the petty officer said.

The guided-missile destroyer Chafee launches a Block V Tomahawk missile, the weapon’s newest variant, during a missile exercise in December 2020. (Navy)
The guided-missile destroyer Chafee launches a Block V Tomahawk missile, the weapon’s newest variant, during a missile exercise in December 2020. (Navy)

The petty officer said shipmates feel like no one is standing up for them.

“These O-5s work for an O-6 who never come on these boats, who makes policies and makes the O-5 carry them out,” the petty officer said. “The O-5 don’t have the balls to stand up to the O-6 and say what’s going on because he’s afraid he will get fired.”

The petty officer said they are additionally dismayed by the fact that junior sailors, the future of the Navy, will think this is how things always are.

“Today, one of my junior sailors asked me what the difference is between the Navy and prison,” the petty officer said. “I didn’t have an answer for him. I was confused because this is not normal.”

The other petty officer said they understand that COVID is a threat that must be mitigated, but feel like Navy leadership “is killing” its ability to retain sailors.

They said the ship was supposed to head back to Hawaii Friday, but they now expect to leave as late as Monday.

“This is actually a very scary thing,” one petty officer said in a message Wednesday night. “They just quarantined five more people while I was telling you this.”

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