COVID-19 is hitting aircraft carriers and other Navy ships. What are the risks for Virginia sailors?  

By: - April 10, 2020 12:04 am

The USS Harry S. Truman, which has its home port in Norfolk, is pictured anchored in The Solent on October 8, 2018 near Portsmouth, England. The nuclear powered aircraft carrier is named after the 33rd president of the United States and has a crew of more than 5,000. The Nimitz-class ship, launched in 1998, carries more than 70 helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft. (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — The COVID-19 outbreak on the USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier led to the quarantine of thousands of sailors, a firing of captain who pleaded for help, the resignation of the acting U.S. Navy secretary and broad concerns about the safety of servicemembers confined to cramped quarters aboard vessels.

Those concerns are acute in Virginia, which is home to six of the nation’s 11 aircraft carriers and numerous other warships. Three of those carriers — USS George Washington, USS John C. Stennis and USS George H.W. Bush — are currently at Naval Station Norfolk, the world’s largest naval base, according to the Navy.

In addition to the Roosevelt, three other U.S. aircraft carriers have reported positive cases of COVID-19, Politico reported. They include the Bremerton, Wash.-based USS Nimitz and USS Carl Vinson; and the USS Ronald Reagan in Japan. And experts expect it’s likely just a matter of time before other carriers see infections.

“We’ve got confirmed cases on four carriers, and obviously there’s ships other than carriers, too,” Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) told the Mercury Wednesday in an interview.

He said it’ll be “very hard to avoid” infections across the U.S. fleet of aircraft carriers. “This is a global pandemic that is going to affect every community and every country in the world,” Kaine said. In the military, “the Navy has been the hardest hit and that’s not a surprise in a way, because the Navy operates in the closest quarters.”

Former Virginia Democratic Rep. Jim Moran doesn’t expect the widespread outbreak on the Roosevelt carrier to be a “one off,” he said this week in an interview.

“Ships and submarines and other parts of the Navy’s fleet are very susceptible,” added Moran, who served on the U.S. House defense appropriations subcommittee. “The Navy is known for its cleanliness and the fact that they scrub everything down, but even so, I think that these crews are vulnerable.”

Among the branches of the military, the Navy was reporting the highest number of COVID-19 cases, the Military Times reported this week.

More than 400 sailors assigned to the USS Theodore Roosevelt, which is docked in Guam, have tested positive for COVID-19, NBC News reported Thursday. One sailor was transferred to an intensive care unit.

People stand on the deck of the USS Theodore Roosevelt anchored off Stokes Bay on April 6, 2009 in Portsmouth, England. (Photo by Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

“Chances are pretty good that at some point many, if not most, ships in the Navy are going to have to deal with this type of situation,” said Brad Martin, a retired U.S. Navy captain who is now a senior policy researcher for the RAND Corporation.

Cmdr. Ron Flanders, a spokesman for Naval Air Forces, told the Mercury this week that the Navy has put procedures in place to protect sailors and their families.

“Personnel are taking the temperature of sailors on the pier, every day, before they come aboard the ship. If a sailor is showing a fever, they’re not allowed to come aboard the ship and they’re placed in a 14-day isolation,” Flanders said.

For aircraft carriers in port, when possible, the Navy has significantly reduced staffing, he said. Many of the members of those carriers’ roughly 3,000-person crews aren’t coming in, using a rotating staffing system.

Sailors are practicing social distancing and following federal guidance about handwashing, Flanders said. All Navy ships are conducting frequent cleaning and disinfecting of handrails, doorknobs and high-traffic areas multiple times daily. Sailors on aircraft carriers are isolating for 14 days prior to heading to sea, and deployed carriers will spend at least 14 days at sea following a port visit before docking at another port.

Kaine, who serves on the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee and is the father of a U.S. Marine, said he’s concerned about COVID-19 impacting the military in his home state and elsewhere.

“I’m worried about it wherever it is … anywhere it’s affecting the military or military families or civilians or the contractors, because they’re all a team. It causes significant concern,” Kaine said.

He and Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) wrote a letter on April 1 to then-Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly posing a series of questions about the Navy’s readiness to handle COVID-19 outbreaks.

“As you are aware, there are countless Virginians with family members serving aboard Navy warships who are all concerned about the health and well-being of their loved ones,” the senators wrote. “We share these concerns for all our personnel serving in the military at this challenging time.”

Modly resigned under pressure this week following a backlash after he removed the commander of the USS Theodore Roosevelt and called him “stupid” for his response to the outbreak on the ship.

Democratic Rep. Elaine Luria, a 20-year Navy veteran whose 2nd District includes Naval Station Norfolk, was among the members of Congress who called for Modly to be fired after his pointed criticism of USS Theodore Roosevelt Captain Brett Crozier.

“TR sailors are on the frontlines of this pandemic and of our nation’s defense in the Pacific,” Luria said this week ahead of Modly’s resignation. “Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly’s remarks to the crew show that he is in no way fit to lead our Navy through this trying time. [Defense] Secretary [Mark] Esper should immediately fire him.”

Kaine said Wednesday that he hadn’t gotten a response to the questions he had posed to the Navy. In March, President Donald Trump nominated Kenneth Braithwaite, his ambassador to Norway, to be the next Navy secretary, but it’s unclear how quickly the Senate will act on the nomination.

Kaine said there will be time to investigate how the outbreak on the Roosevelt carrier was handled. The federal government “made huge mistakes on not doing adequate testing, and the same thing has happened in the military,” he added.

The absence of testing and the severe shortage of medical equipment, Kaine said, “can be laid at the feet of an anti-science administration that told the world that this was not a problem, that it was being overblown by the media or overblown by Democrats.”

Pentagon officials have stressed that military readiness is not at risk from the pandemic.

“The U.S. military is very, very capable to conduct whatever operations are necessary to defend the American people,” Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Thursday during a Defense Department town hall. “We are ready today, we’ll be ready tomorrow and we will adapt ourselves to be able to operate within a COVID-19 environment. We’re already doing that.”

The Military Times reported earlier this week that the military’s infection rate was 683-per-million, compared to the general U.S. rate of 932 per million.

“It’s much lower in terms of the rate of infection that you see in our civilian counterparts,” Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Thursday during the town hall.

Milley said that the nearly 2,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases in the military was “not huge,” but he acknowledged that the number will “probably go up.”

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Robin Bravender
Robin Bravender

Robin Bravender was the States Newsroom Washington Bureau Chief from January 2019 until June 2020. She coordinated the network’s national coverage and reported on states’ congressional delegations, federal agencies, the White House and the federal courts. Prior to that, Robin was an editor and reporter at E&E News, a reporter at Politico, and a freelance producer for Reuters TV.