The U.S. Navy is evacuating thousands of sailors from the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt in Guam after its captain warned that a coronavirus outbreak was threatening the lives of the crew.
Ninety-three COVID-19 cases have been discovered among the 4,800-strong Roosevelt crew so far, according to the Navy.
Pentagon officials said Wednesday that they were rapidly arranging hotel rooms on the Pacific island for many of the crew, while organizing a skeleton team of uninfected sailors to keep the ship operational.
"The plan at this time is to remove as many people off the Teddy Roosevelt as we can, understanding that we have to leave a certain amount of folks onboard to perform normal watch-standing duties that keep the ship running," Rear Admiral John Menoni, commander for the Marianas region, told reporters in Guam on Wednesday.
Speaking in Washington, acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly said that almost 1,000 of the crew had been removed, and that that number would rise to 2,700 within a couple days.
Many must stay
But they need to retain around 1,000 on board just to maintain the vessel, as it undergoes a thorough sterilization.
"We cannot and will not remove all the sailors from the ship," Modly said.
"This ship has weapons on it, it has munitions on it, it has expensive aircraft, and has a nuclear power plant," he said.
Earlier this week, the Roosevelt's captain, Brett Crozier, told his superiors that the new coronavirus was spreading uncontrollably through the ship, and he called for immediate help to quarantine its crew.
"The spread of the disease is ongoing and accelerating," Crozier wrote. "We are not at war. Sailors do not need to die."
"Removing the majority of personnel from a deployed U.S. nuclear aircraft carrier and isolating them for two weeks may seem like an extraordinary measure," Crozier said. "This is a necessary risk."
Hotels in Guam
Menoni said a plan was being developed to get as many sailors off the ship as possible, and they were awaiting the arrival of 40 U.S. Marine health specialists to help in testing.
He said only sailors deemed healthy would be housed outside the Guam naval base, a strategically important Pentagon port in the middle of the western Pacific Ocean.
"No one is allowed off the base unless they have tested negative for COVID-19," Menoni said.
As of Wednesday more than 1,400 Defense Department employees, contractors and dependents had been infected by the novel coronavirus, including 771 military personnel, the Pentagon said.
Balancing health, security
The Roosevelt's docking in Guam on March 28 left both of the Pentagon's western Pacific aircraft carriers in port, with the USS Ronald Reagan berthed in Japan, also reportedly suffering an unknown number of coronavirus cases.
Modly admitted it was a challenge for U.S. forces' defense readiness.
"Right now the Teddy Roosevelt is a front-line theater in this new battle," he said.
However, he added, "If the ship needs to go, if there's a crisis, the ship can go."
He stressed that the Roosevelt was the only Navy ship out of 94 deployed at sea that had active COVID-19 cases. There were scattered cases in vessels not deployed, he added, but in each case only in the single digits.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Tuesday that he did not see anyone testing U.S. military readiness amid the pandemic.
"What we find, tend to find right now, it's that a lot of countries have turned inward and are focusing inward," he said.