Asked about removing over 4,000 sailors aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt – the first US warship on deployment to report an outbreak of the lethal virus – Esper said it was premature, stating “I don’t think we’re at that point.”
“We’re moving a lot of supplies and assistance, medical assistance, out to the carrier in Guam. We’re providing additional medical personnel as they need it,” Esper told CBS News in an interview on Tuesday, adding that none of the sailors were seriously ill.
The Roosevelt was effectively taken out of commission last week, after several dozen crewmen contracted Covid-19, forcing the ship to divert from its mission in the South China Sea and dock at Guam, where all personnel on board received screenings for the virus.
More than 100 of the USS Theodore Roosevelt crew ultimately tested positive for Coronavirus.
With thousands of seamen living in close proximity on the cramped vessel, the rapidly spreading outbreak prompted the ship’s commander, Captain Brett Crozier, to pen a letter to the Defense Department asking that all personnel be allowed to disembark and go into quarantine. The missive was unusual, as the captain skipped several rungs on the chain of command to make the request directly to the Pentagon, likely suggesting its urgency.
“Decisive action is required now in order to… prevent tragic outcomes,” Crozier wrote, adding that instead of additional testing for the virus, “our focus now must be on quarantine and isolation.”
“Sailors do not need to die.”
Last week 3 sailors tested positive, now 150-200
— Matthias Gafni (@mgafni) March 31, 2020
Esper said he had yet to read Crozier’s letter in detail, preferring to deal with the issue through the regular chain of command, and did not comment directly on the captain’s request during his interview with CBS beyond questioning the need for an evacuation.
“Well, I have not had a chance to read that letter, read in detail,” he said. “I’m going to rely on the Navy chain of command to go out there to assess the situation and to make sure they provide the captain and the crew all the support they need to get the sailors healthy and get the ship back at sea.”
At least three other minor outbreaks have been reported on board Navy warships – the USS Boxer, the USS Colorado, and the USS Ralph Johnson, all docked off the West Coast – though none of them are currently on deployment.