In an unusually blunt memo, the captain of the USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier has warned top Navy leaders that most of his ship's crew of 5,000 needs to be quarantined ashore in Guam -- because he's concerned that keeping them on the ship would continue the spread of the novel coronavirus.
A week after an initial three sailors were identified as being infected with the virus, a U.S. official told ABC News that the number of infected sailors has risen to at least 70.
The aircraft carrier is currently in Guam, where it docked on a timely port visit that allowed it to quarantine the growing number of infected sailors and enable the testing of the ship's crew.
Under Navy orders, the majority of the ship's crew has remained aboard the ship while pierside. Some have been moved to shore, though not in the individual housing advised under guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
In a copy of the memo, sent to top Navy leaders on March 30 and obtained by ABC News, Captain Brett Crozier, the ship's commanding officer (CO), argued that testing was not enough and that more needed to be done to keep the virus from spreading quickly to the rest of the ship's crew. The contents of the memo were first reported by the San Francisco Chronicle.
Crozier continued, adding that "due to a warship's inherent limitations of space," it isn't possible to comply with the CDC's recommendations for social distancing.
"With the exceptions of a handful of senior officer staterooms, none of the berthing onboard a warship is appropriate for quarantine or isolation," Crozier wrote. "Thousands of ‘close contact’ Sailors require quarantine in accordance with guidance."
"The only effective method to preserve an individual’s health is total isolation for 14+ days in accordance with the NAVADMIN Individual hotel/barracks rooms with separate heads," he wrote.
Crozier added that "decisive action is required" because the "the spread of the disease is ongoing and accelerating" and will continue because he can’t meet the CDC’s social distancing guidelines and separation for up to two weeks.
In order to meet the guidelines, Crozier urged that his sailors needed to be placed in individual quarantine facilities on Guam, each with its own bathroom. While he acknowledged that it "may seem like an extraordinary measure" to remove the majority of a deployed U.S. aircraft carrier's personnel, he said it was "necessary."
Crozier said that 10% of the ship's crew could remain aboard to run its nuclear reactor, maintain security and sanitize the ship.
"This is a necessary risk," Crozier said. "Keeping over 4,000 young men and women on board the [Roosevelt] is an unnecessary risk and breaks faith with those Sailors entrusted to our care."
A Navy official said the leadership is "moving quickly" to take necessary action to ensure the ship crew's health and safety, and "pursuing options" to address the captain's concerns.
In a broadcast interview on Tuesday, acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly said he was aware of Crozier’s letter, but that there have been developments that have occurred since his letter was first reported publicly. According to Modly 1,000 of the ship's crew of 5,000 had already been transferred ashore.
"We’ve been working actually the last several days to move those sailors off the ship and to get them into accommodations in Guam," he said.
Modly said the problem is that Guam doesn't have enough beds and they are talking with the government about potential hotel space or "create some tent-type facilities there."
What to know about coronavirus:
- How it started and how to protect yourself: coronavirus explained
- What to do if you have symptoms: coronavirus symptoms
- Tracking the spread in the US and Worldwide: coronavirus map
"We don't disagree with the CO [commanding officer] on that ship, and we're doing it in a very methodical way, because it's not the same as a cruise ship," Modly said.
Adm. John Aquilino, the commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, told reporters late Tuesday that sailors are coming off the ship, but that there are no plans to remove all of them.
"My number one concern is for the safety and welfare of our sailors and their families throughout the fleet," said Aquilino. "We are working towards providing the capacity to isolate and quarantine. As discussed in the letter we have been working that for a number of days."
Asked if he disagreed with the points Crozier made in his memo, Aquilino said, "We're saying the same thing. I think his disagreement, or his concern, is associated with the pace that we get sailors off, not that we're not going to get sailors off."
"I just want to be very clear that we will have to leave some number of sailors on that ship, as we go through testing quarantine and isolation, to generate completely COVID-free sailors," sad Aquilino
"We're on the same sheet of music," he said. "And I'm really trying to make it happen more quickly, but there are some constraints that we are operating around," he said later.
Crozier said his ship is still capable of going into wartime operations if needed, but he bluntly made his point, writing, "We are not at war. Sailors do not need to die. If we do not act now, we are failing to properly take care of our most trusted asset our Sailors."
"There are challenges associated with securing individualized lodging for our crew," he continued. "This will require a political solution, but it is the right thing to do."