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Acting Navy Secretary Resigns After Comments Critical of Relieved Captain

FILE - Thomas Modly resigned his post as acting secretary of the Navy Tuesday "on his own accord."

The number of coronavirus cases from the USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier continues to rise in Guam, as the official responsible for relieving the ship’s captain resigned Tuesday.

Navy officials told VOA on Tuesday that 230 of the Roosevelt’s sailors had tested positive for coronavirus, which as of early Tuesday was more than 15% of all U.S. service members who have been confirmed with the virus worldwide.

Last week, the carrier’s commanding officer, Capt. Brett Crozier, wrote a letter of concern to his superiors, urging them to take "decisive action" to prevent deaths from the coronavirus.

Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly, who fired Crozier on Thursday, resigned Tuesday morning “on his own accord,” Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said.

“I have the deepest respect for anyone who serves our country, and who places the greater good above all else. Secretary Modly did that today, and I wish him all the best,” Esper said, adding that Jim McPherson, the current Army undersecretary, would replace Modly as acting secretary of the Navy.

Modly issued an apology to the crew late Monday after calling the captain “too naive or too stupid to be the commanding officer” for sending his letter to at least 20 Navy personnel.

In a recording of Modly’s remarks to the Roosevelt crew, a sailor can be heard screaming an expletive in disapproval immediately after this critical comment.

Crozier was cheered and applauded by the ship’s crew as he left the ship last week.

Roughly 2,000 of the nearly 5,000 sailors aboard the Roosevelt have been evacuated off the ship in an effort to clean it after the COVID-19 outbreak.

Comfort medical ship changes course

Meanwhile, officials say the Navy hospital ship Comfort, docked in New York Harbor, will treat some of the patients suffering most acutely from the coronavirus, in addition to patients needing care for trauma. Defense officials say patients less severely affected with COVID-19 will remain at the Army-built temporary hospital in the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in Manhattan.

FILE - U.S. Army Major Sean Shirley holds a meeting with staff in the Javits New York Medical Station intensive care unit bay monitoring coronavirus disease (COVID-19) patients in New York City, April 4, 2020.
FILE - U.S. Army Major Sean Shirley holds a meeting with staff in the Javits New York Medical Station intensive care unit bay monitoring coronavirus disease (COVID-19) patients in New York City, April 4, 2020.

The ship’s medics have treated five trauma patients who were also sick with coronavirus, and the Comfort now has a Navy crew member aboard who has tested positive for COVID-19, with several others in isolation.

All members of the crew had tested negative for the virus before leaving the Comfort’s port in Norfolk, Va., defense officials said.

Vice Adm. Andrew Lewis, the commander of the U.S. Second Fleet, told reporters Tuesday that all patients had also tested negative for COVID-19 before boarding the ship, but some were retested after displaying COVID symptoms.

The Comfort and its sister ship, the USNS Mercy, were sent to New York and Los Angeles, respectively, to treat noncoronavirus trauma patients in order to free up local hospital beds and medical personnel needed for coronavirus patients.

“For the Comfort to really relieve the pressure to be a part of relief for the pressure on the New York City hospitals, we have to be able to do this,” Lewis said. “There is a very small number in the New York City hospitals hospitalized for something other than COVID and are COVID negative.”

After the ship’s reconfiguration to accept COVID-19 patients, the Comfort will have 500 beds, plus an additional 100 intensive-care-unit beds equipped with ventilators, Lewis said.

Joint Staff surgeon Brig. Gen. Paul Friedrichs said just hours before the reconfiguration was announced that the ship was capable of isolating “a small number” of patients with infectious diseases, but added that was not what the ship was primarily designed to treat.

The Pentagon’s “preference” on Monday was to treat COVID-19 patients in the Javits Convention Center, Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said.

On Friday, Hoffman also had warned that opening up the Comfort to COVID-19 patients would increase the doctors’ likelihood of infection and could result in emptying the ship for a deep clean that reduces the ship’s ability to assist elsewhere for days.

Other military help continues to surge

As New York continues to face the brunt of the pandemic, the Pentagon is sending 1,500 additional military medical personnel to New York who will arrive by Thursday. About 350 of them will be deployed to 11 New York City hospitals to assist in patient care.

“Many of these hospitals have beds available, but they're starting to see their staff being squeezed by the intense workload that they have been under. And we're hoping to alleviate and assist them,” Hoffman said Monday.

Across the country, more than 26,000 National Guardsmen are supporting the response to the coronavirus by manning local testing sites and distributing medical supplies and food.

As of early Tuesday, 2,449 coronavirus cases around the globe were related to the U.S. military – 1,521 service members, 406 civilians, 343 dependents and 179 contractors – the Pentagon said. There have been seven DOD-related COVID-19 deaths, including one service member.