Updated April 2, 2020.
The commander of a US Navy aircraft carrier in the midst of a COVID-19 outbreak was swiftly fired by Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly following media coverage of the plight of more than 200 COVID-19 positive sailors on the USS Theodore Roosevelt.
In a statement released April 2, Modly announced the removal of Capt. Brett Crozier for writing a memo that was later leaked to the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper. According to Acting Secretary Modly, the memo was sent “outside the chain of command” and his action “made his Sailors, their families, and many in the public believe that his letter was the only reason help from our larger Navy family was forthcoming, which was hardly the case.”
On Monday, March 30, Capt. Crozier, commanding officer of the nuclear aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt, sent an urgent request for assistance to senior Navy officials: “[I]n combat we are willing to take certain risks that are not acceptable in peacetime. However, we are not at war, and therefore cannot allow a single Sailor to perish as a result of this pandemic unnecessarily. Decisive action is required now in order to comply with CDC and NAVADMIN 083/20 guidance and prevent tragic outcomes.”
Even as a number of cruise ships with ill and dying passengers were—are—waiting to be allowed to dock in Florida and elsewhere, the USS Theodore Roosevelt was also dealing with a COVID-19 outbreak onboard—and awaiting permission to let the crew of more than 4,000 on shore so they could quarantine safely.
Crozier pointed to “lessons learned” from the Diamond Princess—the only comparable situation at the time. He quoted from the abstract to an epidemiological research study: An index case on board the cruise ship was reported in late January; a month later, 619 of 3,700 passengers and crew had tested positive. Without any interventions, the abstract noted, between January 21st and February 19th an estimated 2,920 of the passengers would have been infected. Isolation and quarantine, it concluded, prevented 2,307 cases. Further, an early evacuation would have been associated with 76 infected persons.
The Diamond Princess, Crozier wrote, was able to more effectively isolate people due to a higher percentage of individual and compartmentalized accommodations. However, due to a warship’s “inherent limitations of space,” his crew could not comply with orders to practice social distancing. “With the exceptions of a handful of senior officer staterooms,” he wrote, “none of the berthing onboard a warship is appropriate for quarantine or isolation.” He also pointed to other obstacles: shared bathrooms, shared sleeping quarters, group mealtimes, and ladders and other surfaces touched and possibly contaminated as crew move around the ship.
Moreover, Crozier wrote, “The spread of the disease is ongoing and accelerating.” By Tuesday March 31st, nearly 1,300 sailors had been tested, and hundreds were testing negative, but 243 sailors had tested positive and 87 more were showing symptoms, according to the latest reports. So far, none are showing serious symptoms.
“If we do not act now, we are failing to take care of our most trusted asset—our sailors,” Capt Crozier wrote. At first, no one seemed to be listening, but after the Chronicle broke the story and it began circulating in the media—things changed. “I heard about the letter from Capt. Crozier [Tuesday] morning,” said Acting Secretary Modly in an interview with the Chronicle. “I know that our command organization has been aware of this for about 24 hours and we have been working actually the last 7 days to move those sailors off the ship and get them into accommodations in Guam. The problem is that Guam doesn’t have enough beds right now and we’re having to talk to the government there to see if we can get some hotel space, create tent-type facilities.”
He noted that the situation for the USS Theodore Roosevelt is “a little bit different and unique” in that it has aircraft and armaments on it, fire hazards, and “we have to run a nuclear power plant.” Crozier had proposed that approximately 10% of the crew remain on board to take care of the duties such as tending to the nuclear reactor.
As of April 1, the Navy plans to remove some 2,700 sailors to the hotel rooms government officials on Guam have secured for them. Secretary Modly made no mention of the care or treatment of infected sailors in his April 2nd statement, but offered this reassurance: “You can offer comfort to your fellow citizens who are struggling and fearful here at home by standing the watch, and working your way through this pandemic with courage and optimism and set the example for the nation. We have an obligation to ensure you have everything you need as fast as we can get it there, and you have my commitment that we will not let you down.”
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