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Congress Asks for New Social Distancing Rules on U.S. Warships

A top Democrat wants the CDC to draw up fresh rules to stop the spread of the coronavirus after an outbreak sidelined an aircraft carrier in Guam.

Capt. Brett Crozier, then the commanding officer of the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt, addresses the crew in the Eastern Pacific Ocean on Dec. 15, 2019.
Capt. Brett Crozier, then-commanding officer of the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt, addresses the crew during an all-hands call on the ship’s flight deck in the eastern Pacific Ocean on Dec. 15, 2019. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Kaylianna Genier

A senior Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee is calling for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to draw up fresh guidelines to prevent the spread of the coronavirus aboard U.S. warships as the virus-wracked USS Theodore Roosevelt remains pierside in Guam.

In a letter to the agency’s chief provided to Foreign Policy by a House aide, Democratic Rep. Jackie Speier, the head of the Subcommittee on Military Personnel, asked CDC Director Robert Redfield to push for new recommendations to help sailors packed in close quarters mitigate the disease. 

The Navy said on Tuesday that 710 members of the Roosevelt’s crew had tested positive for the coronavirus, in three weeks since the ship’s fired skipper, Capt. Brett Crozier, called for the service to leave just 10 percent of sailors aboard the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier.

“As the fallout from the infections aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt continues, I am concerned about the U.S. Navy’s response to this pandemic aboard ship and their adherence to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines for social distancing, quarantine and isolation,” Speier wrote to Redfield on April 16. “Clearly, the CDC required six feet of physical distancing and avoidance of crowded places is nearly impossible on a U.S. warship considering the close quarters of the working environment and sleeping arrangements.”

[Mapping the Coronavirus Outbreak: Get daily updates on the pandemic.]

Speier—one of several members of Congress calling for a hearing to address the Crozier case—is also asking for the agency to track infections aboard the Roosevelt and detect any sailors with antibodies to the virus. 

CNN reported on Monday that the Navy and the CDC launched a joint probe to determine the origin of the outbreak and how it spread aboard the ship. A Navy official told Foreign Policy on Friday that the first two cases of the virus aboard the ship came from the air wing, after Navy Surgeon General Rear Adm. Bruce Gillingham said—and then reversed himself—there was “evidence to suggest” that the troops picked up the illness while on a resupply mission in Da Nang, Vietnam, in March. 

“There are numerous questions she’s still pushing for answers on, such as why the Navy still has not provided the sailors aboard the ship and throughout the fleet with critically needed [personal protective equipment] despite the Defense Department’s claim of a healthy stockpile,” a Speier aide told Foreign Policy.

Speier’s letter follows the start of a House probe into former acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly’s removal of Crozier that is focused on the captain’s warnings to Navy leaders that his aircraft carrier was wracked with the coronavirus. The action comes amid news that Modly may have exaggerated his rationale for the dismissal.

The Democrat-controlled House Oversight and Reform Committee launched its investigation on April 7, just days after Crozier was dismissed for writing a memorandum recommending that all 5,000 sailors on the ship disembark and self-quarantine for two weeks so the ship could be sanitized.

“The [Subcommittee on National Security] continues to investigate the circumstances that led to Captain Crozier’s dismissal, as well as the preceding communications he may have had with his chain of command that seemingly left him with no other choice but to send an urgent request for help managing the coronavirus outbreak on his ship,” a Democratic aide for the oversight panel said in a statement. 

Trump ally Sen. Lindsey Graham said it was time to “move on” in the wake of Modly’s firing, while the top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Mac Thornberry, said the changing of the guard in the Navy’s top office “should allow the country to put this episode behind us.”

The Navy is expected to wrap up an investigation into the incident later this week that could restore Crozier to command of the warship, even as Politico reported on Tuesday that the service has delayed onboarding sailors back onto the Roosevelt. Crozier, the California native whose urgent warning to higher-ups about the spread of the coronavirus aboard his ship leaked to the San Francisco Chronicle late last month, was supposed to be reassigned to a different command after Modly fired him.

The Navy said on Tuesday that 94 percent of the USS Theodore Roosevelt’s crew had been tested for the coronavirus, including Crozier, as some 4,158 sailors had moved ashore into gymnasiums and hotel rooms on Guam. One sailor, 41-year-old Aviation Ordnanceman Chief Petty Officer Charles Robert Thacker Jr., died of COVID-19 last week.

In the wake of the spread of the novel virus aboard the Roosevelt, Defense Secretary Mark Esper has ordered U.S. aircraft carriers to halt all port visits and remain at sea, though the USS Chester Nimitz is soon set to depart, replacing the USS Harry Truman, which shifted out of the Middle East this month.

But the continuing situation surrounding the Roosevelt underscores the tension between the Defense Department, Congress, and military families over implementing the Trump administration’s social distancing guidelines. Former Democratic vice presidential nominee Sen. Tim Kaine, who holds a slot on the Senate Armed Services Committee, called on the Pentagon to set up a widespread testing program to protect U.S. troops. 

“[T]here is still no clear goal announced by this administration about what an optimal testing program would look like,” Kaine wrote in an op-ed in the Virginian-Pilot on Tuesday. “Instead, we hear inaccurate promises that ‘everyone can get a test’ or platitudes about how much better we are doing or will be doing in the near future.” 

But the calls for social distancing from lawmakers and military families have not slowed the Pentagon’s desire to get back to pre-virus pace of operations.

On Monday, the Army resumed shipping recruits to basic training after a two-week hiatus, as Foreign Policy reported last week, raising concerns among family members that the rate of infection could increase before a vaccine is available. The Army will also resume face-to-face recruiting after closing stations on March 18, as online recruiting has lagged behind the service’s ambitious targets despite jobless claims topping 22 million in the United States in the month since most states enacted strict social distancing guidelines.

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

Joe Gould reports on Congress and national defense from Washington

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