The U.S. Navy aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt has headed out to sea after nearly two months in Guam, where almost a quarter of the 4,800 sailors aboard the ship were infected with the novel coronavirus, the Navy said in a statement.
The ship will remain in the waters off the coast of Guam so that its pilots and air crews can be recertified for flight operations. The nearly 1,800 sailors who remained on Guam to complete their self-quarantine will reboard the ship when it returns.
The carrier's departure comes seven weeks after the carrier first arrived in Guam following the first positive tests of COVID-19 among the ship's crew of 4,865 sailors.
The Navy soon began a process to quarantine and test the ship's crew in Navy facilities and hotels on Guam but ultimately more than 1,110 sailors, or close to a quarter of the ship's crew, contracted the virus. There was one sailor who died.
Eventually, 4,000 sailors were quarantined for 14 days on Guam as the remaining 800 continued to carry out essential functions and disinfect the entire ship. The idea was that as sailors cleared quarantine and tested negative for COVID-19, they would swap places with the sailors who were still aboard the ship.
To ensure that there would not be any new outbreaks aboard the carrier, all returning sailors had to test negative twice after completing their quarantine. Social distancing and rigorous cleaning and disinfecting procedures were also put in place aboard the ship.
That process appeared to be going smoothly until last week when it was discovered that 14 sailors who had previously tested positive for the virus were once again testing positive.
A defense official says the tests may be detecting remnants of the virus still in the sailors' system because they do not appear to be contagious.
Officials said the Navy decided that the ship could head out to sea without waiting for the entire ship's crew to clear the quarantine and the two rounds of tests. The focus was on having an appropriate number of sailors responsible for the jobs essential to keep the ship running and maintain its flight operations.
After carrying out the re-certification of its air wing the ship will return to Guam to pick up the rest of the ship's crew. It is likely that the ship will then continue with its deployment in the western Pacific.
The carrier and its crew became embroiled in controversy as Capt. Brett Crozier, the ship's commanding officer requested in a letter that the Navy do more to stem the spread of the coronavirus among the crew. The letter was later published by a newspaper.
Then-acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly fired Crozier as commanding officer, but later resigned himself following his controversial comments to the ship's crew in Guam, where he blasted Crozier as being "naive" or "too stupid" not to have known that his letter would become public.
After an initial review Adm. Michael Gilday, the chief of naval operations, recommended the unprecedented move to reinstate Crozier to his command.
The Navy has launched a broader review of its actions to combat the virus, which has left in doubt whether Crozier's reinstatement would be carried out. That review is to be completed and submitted to Gilday by May 27.