WASHINGTON – Three sailors aboard the 5,000-member USS Theodore Roosevelt have contracted COVID-19 and were airlifted from the aircraft carrier in the Pacific, Navy officials announced Tuesday.
They are the first sailors to become ill from the coronavirus while aboard a ship at sea, raising questions about further spread of the highly contagious disease and the overall strain of the pandemic on military readiness.
The Pentagon already has canceled or curtailed major war-training exercises, quarantined thousands of troops, closed recruiting centers and slapped limits on foreign and domestic travel.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper acknowledged Tuesday that readiness, the term the military uses to gauge its ability to fight, has been affected by coronavirus. Several major training operations have been canceled since the pandemic swept around the globe.
The Pentagon remains capable of meeting any threats, he said.
Officials aboard the Roosevelt are tracing the contacts the three sailors had to determine if the disease has spread further, said Adm. Michael Gilday, chief of naval operations.
The Roosevelt had been at Danang, Vietnam, 15 days ago for a port visit. The sick sailors have been flown from the ship to a military hospital in the Pacific region, Gilday said.
Gilday declined to say how many others had been in contact with the ill sailors, saying he did not want to signal vulnerability to adversaries.
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It’s not clear that the sailors contracted the virus in Vietnam, Gilday said. Aircraft have also been flying to and from the Roosevelt as well.
The Navy has canceled port visits for its nearly 100 ships at sea, Gilday said. The ships will stop only for maintenance or resupply. No sailors aboard submarines have tested positive, Gilday said. Social distancing aboard submarines would be difficult given close quarters.
Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, predicted the effects of missed training opportunities from coronavirus to be minimal.
“There will be an impact to readiness,” Milley said. “I think will be on the low end.”
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