When I wrote yesterday about the COVID-19 outbreak on the USS Roosevelt, I urged in the strongest possible terms that the Navy abandon some of their usual protocols and get our squids off of the ship and into some form of safe shelter on Guam. (Hopefully without tipping the island over, of course.) It sounds like rational thinking has prevailed because the Pentagon announced last night that they’ll be doing just that, at least for most of the crew. The downside to this is that one of our premier military assets in the region will be out of action for weeks to come, if not months. (Associated Press)
Nearly 3,000 sailors aboard a U.S. aircraft carrier where the coronavirus has spread will be taken off the ship by Friday, Navy officials said Wednesday as they struggle to quarantine crew members in the face of an outbreak.
So far, fewer than 100 of the nearly 5,000 sailors assigned to the USS Theodore Roosevelt, now docked in Guam, have tested positive for the virus, but the Navy is moving sailors into various facilities and probably will begin using hotel rooms in the coming days. Navy leaders are talking with government officials in the U.S. territory to identify rooms for the crew members.
Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly, however, made it clear that while several thousand will leave the ship, other sailors will remain on board in order to continue to protect the ship and run critical systems.
This represents something of a compromise between what the Captain had been requesting and doing nothing. The latter was clearly unacceptable, but a complete evacuation of the ship was also impossible. This is particularly true for our nuclear-powered vessels. You don’t just shut down a reactor on a moment’s notice, nor bring it back up to power with the snap of your fingers. Somebody has to be on board to tend to the equipment.
Similarly, you can’t just turn the Roosevelt into a ghost ship. Crew members will have to be available to stand watch and prevent intruders from boarding. And others have to remain behind to ensure that the skeleton crew is fed and cared for. The key at this point, as the Navy spokesperson pointed out, is to get enough test kits to test every last crew member and make sure that all of the infected sailors are taken ashore and put under medical care. The entire ship will need to be sterilized in the meantime.
Still, leaving nearly 2,000 people on the ship seems excessive. It will certainly cut down on some of the crowding, which is a very good thing, but those sailors are still going to be running into each other on a regular basis. If they miss even one sailor who is infected but still asymptomatic, we could be right back the same boat (pardon the pun) one week from now and have to evacuate even more of the crew anyway.
The longer these preventative measures drag on, the longer the Roosevelt will be out of service and the more obvious the gap in our deployed naval forces will become. It seems like we could cut the staffing down to a few hundred and still maintain the minimum requirements for both maintenance and security while keeping the troops healthy. Remember, these are the men and women who volunteered to put their lives on the line to defend all of us. It’s bad enough that they risk their lives protecting us in the event of a battle. They don’t need to worry about being taken out by an invisible, microscopic enemy on a plague ship.