The aircraft carrier docked in Guam last week after more than 20 sailors tested positive for Covid-19. While in Guam, each of the 5,000 sailors aboard was to be tested.
As the infection spread throughout the crew, the ship’s captain, Brett Crozier, sent a letter to his superiors saying his sailors needed to be put in isolation and that their lives were at risk. Mr Crozier’s letter was leaked to the press.
“We are not at war. Sailors do not need to die. If we do not act now, we are failing to properly take care of our most trusted asset – our Sailors,” Mr Crozier wrote.
Mr Esper admitted during an interview on the CBS Evening News that he had not read Mr Crozier’s letter, but chose to publicly disagree with his actions regardless.
“I don’t think we’re at that point,” Mr Esper said when asked if the ship should have been evacuated. “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.”
After CBS News anchor Norah O’Donnell read the captain’s words to him, Mr Esper agreed that “priority number one is taking care of our service members and their families.”
In his letter, Mr Crozier made the argument that, without acting to prevent the spread of the virus on the ship, his sailors would be ready to fight, but they would “fight sick” and that there “would be losses” to the virus.
He suggested the entire crew be allowed off the ship, after which the vessel would undergo a professional cleaning.
While social distancing guidelines may be helpful at slowing infection rates on land, the narrow corridors, tight living spaces and constant movement of sailors throughout the ship make containment of a fast moving virus extremely difficult.
The Acting US Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly said he didn’t agree with Mr Crozier, but said the removal of troops from the ship had to be methodical and strategic.
“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 … that ship has armaments on it, it has aircraft on it,” Mr Modly said during a CNN interview.
The head of the US Navy’s Pacific Fleet, Admiral John Quilino, also stressed the need for a measured response to the virus, suggesting sailors be rotated on and off the ship, placing some sailors in quarantine on land and others in quarantine on the aircraft carrier.
According to the New York Times, the rotation is intended to keep a ready group onboard the ship at all times to ensure mission readiness.
Thus far, no crew members aboard the ship have been hospitalised due to the virus.