The captain of a US Navy aircraft carrier facing a growing coronavirus outbreak has asked for permission to isolate the bulk of his roughly 5,000 crew members on the Pacific Island of Guam, where it is currently docked.
- The spread of coronavirus onboard is accelerating, the captain says
- The nuclear-powered carrier lacks quarantine and isolation facilities
- US Navy officials are trying to find suitable accommodation on Guam
The move would take the USS Theodore Roosevelt out of duty in an effort to save lives, but it may be difficult for the island of just 164,000 people to accommodate the crew.
Guam has only 250 staffed hospital beds, and currently has more COVID-19 cases than any other country or territory in the Pacific region, excluding Australia, New Zealand and Hawaii.
In a four-page memo to Navy leaders, the captain of the nuclear-powered warship said the spread of the disease was ongoing and accelerating, and said that removing all but 10 per cent of the crew is a “necessary risk” in order to stop the spread of the virus.
Captain Brett Crozier wrote that the carrier lacked enough quarantine and isolation facilities and warned the current strategy would slow but fail to eradicate the virus.
“We are not at war. Sailors do not need to die,” he said.
“If we do not act now, we are failing to properly take care of our most trusted asset — our sailors.”
Acting US Navy Secretary Thomas Modly said he had heard about the letter, and that the Navy has been working for several days to get the sailors off ship in Guam.
Mr Modly said Guam did not have enough beds, and the Navy was in talks with the local government to use hotels and set up tents.
“We don’t disagree with [the commanding officer] on that ship, and we’re doing it in a very methodical way because it’s not the same as a cruise ship,” he told CNN.
“That ship has armaments on it, it has aircraft on it.”
A US Navy official, who spoke to the Associated Press on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, said Captain Crozier wants more isolated housing for the crew and that Navy leadership is reviewing options to ensure the health and safety of the crew.
The carrier, like other Navy ships, is vulnerable to infectious disease spread given its close quarters — the massive ship is more than 300 metres long, with sailors spread out across a labyrinth of decks, linked by steep ladder-like stairs and narrow corridors.
Enlisted sailors and officers have separate living quarters, but they routinely grab their food from crowded buffet lines and eat at tables joined end-to-end.
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A carrier presence is central to the US Navy’s operations in the Asia Pacific region amid ongoing tensions with China, over issues including its militarisation of disputed areas of the South China Sea.