Thousands of sailors who were scheduled to head back to the East Coast after deploying to the Middle East will remain at sea while another carrier is sidelined in the Pacific -- and there's no clear end date for their mission.
Family members of sailors assigned to the Harry S. Truman Carrier Strike Group won't get a homecoming as soon as planned. The aircraft carrier and its escort ships will remain at sea as the Navy fights to stay ready to respond to potential crises worldwide during a global pandemic.
Vice Adm. Andrew Lewis, the head of 2nd Fleet, said the crew would typically remain on alert pierside, where sailors could be close to home. But the coronavirus pandemic -- and the way the illness has ripped through another ship's crew -- makes keeping them at sea a safer option.
"It's a very dynamic situation where we are learning very quickly as we go and sharing those best practices across the Navy, across the globe -- and endeavoring to not make any mistakes as we go," Lewis told reporters on Monday.
Rear Adm. Andrew Loiselle, commander of Carrier Strike Group 8, said they are confident there are no coronavirus cases on any of the strike group's ships. It has been about seven weeks since their last port call, and no one outside the crew has boarded the ships since they passed through the Suez Canal more than 14 days ago, he said.
That's the typical maximum incubation period for COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, which has infected more than 10% of the crew on the Theodore Roosevelt.
Carrier readiness has been a top concern among military leaders during the coronavirus crisis. The Roosevelt has been sidelined in Guam since late March. A sailor assigned to that carrier died of complications due to COVID-19 on Monday.
Lewis said it's vital to have a healthy strike group at sea and at the ready to "do the nation's bidding, if and when called." Competition with China, Russia and others continues, he said, and the Navy has to be ready to respond if needed.
The Truman Carrier Strike Group left the Middle East earlier this month, marking the end of a rare two-carrier presence in the region. The ship, along with the carrier Dwight D. Eisenhower, which remains in the area, was there to temper rising tensions with Iran.
Lewis acknowledged that for now, the extension appears open-ended.
"We don't know, frankly, how long it's going to be," he said, adding that he and Loiselle would address the family members directly in three weeks when they know more.
"That's the best we can do in this uncertain environment," Lewis added.
Loiselle said leaders understand extending the deployment burdens families. Navy families, like most Americans, are hunkered down in their houses, juggling kids and work-from-home requirements.
He addressed the crews' families in a Facebook post on Monday, urging them to reach out if they need assistance.
"Please don't disconnect," Loiselle wrote. "Our Sailors treasure their families and you are all the most important means of support. Your love is the light at the end of the tunnel. We will do everything we can to get them home to you safely, and shortly."
Four ships within the strike group -- the guided-missile cruiser Normandy and guided-missile destroyers Lassen, Forrest Sherman and Farragut -- deployed in September as a surface action group. The Truman, which was undergoing repairs, deployed in November.
Loiselle and Lewis described the steps they're taking to protect the crew from any exposure to COVID-19. If aircraft land on the ship to deliver supplies, for example, the crews aren't allowed to leave their planes or helicopters to limit exposure to the crew.
"We gave them a box lunch and sent them on their way," Loiselle said.
Sailors are cleaning the ships three times a day, he said. And since supplies take a few days to reach the strike group at sea, testing shows that the virus won't be able to live that long on cardboard or other materials that are moved onto the ships.
Loiselle said the crews are also challenging themselves to make fixes at sea that would have typically required outside help.
"We're all learning a lot that we go through this and it's truly making us a better, more resilient organization," he said.