'Chaos and Drama:' A New Report Sheds Light on What Went Wrong Aboard the Navy's COVID-Stricken Carrier

Medical personnel take a sample to be tested for COVID-19
Medical personnel assigned to 3rd Medical Battalion, 3rd Marine Logistics Group, verify the identity of a sailor assigned to the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt while taking a sample to be tested for COVID-19, April 20, 2020. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Kaylianna Genier)

The Navy didn't know how to deal with an escalating pandemic and conflicting information hampered the response to the COVID-19 outbreak on the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt, a newly published study by researchers at a Washington, D.C.-based think tank says.

"The chain of command was as bewildered as the captain was," Bradley Martin, one of the authors of the Rand Corp.-produced study, told Military.com in an interview. "There was not a procedure in place to deal with what amounted to a mass casualty."

The Roosevelt and its crew deployed in January 2020, only to have the cruise derailed by an outbreak of COVID-19. The ship ended up spending about one-third of that deployment docked in Guam with many crew members moved into hotels and other facilities as the vessel was disinfected. However, the coronavirus spread rampantly among its personnel, eventually infecting about one-quarter of the sailors on the ship.

The Roosevelt eventually returned home in July but without two crew members, one of whom died from COVID-19; it also lost its original commanding officer. Capt. Brett Crozier was relieved of command over his handling of an emailed warning about the carrier's growing health crisis as COVID-19 cases began to spread rapidly.

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"If this had been some other major medical event on the ship, which was potentially more deadly, it's not clear from the record that the Navy really knew how to deal with that," Martin said.

One of the major factors that drove the muddled response was an "inability to get clear guidance to the ship" from higher up in the Navy about how best to tackle the outbreak, Martin explained.

In fact, "there was a systemic breakdown in which the theater response appeared inadequate to the ship's commanding officer, who felt the need to request assistance across many different commands," the authors described.

The report highlights competing interests on the ship, as the "medical chain of command was focused on how best to treat an outbreak, with maximum emphasis on minimizing risk to patients, while the operational chain of command was focusing on how best to mitigate risk to mission."

Lacking a clear answer from either, the result was the ship's officers reaching out to almost anyone they could inside and outside their chain of command for help. The ship's doctors sent their concerns all the way to the Surgeon General of the Navy and "to over 160 additional email addresses."

Crozier's famously leaked email, in which he implored Navy officials that "sailors do not need to die," was another, and the most public, example of this behavior.

"The Navy's response to the COVID-19 outbreak was characterized by chaos and drama," and "the outcome does not suggest strategic resilience," the report explained.

The study, released Tuesday, noted that while the Navy did have plans to mitigate the spread of diseases such as the flu, a Department of Defense watchdog report found that the vast majority of naval commanders did not conduct the required biennial training on those methods.

Going forward, Martin and his co-author, Trupti Brahmbhatt, suggest the Navy ask harder questions about how critical a ship's mission is when responding to an outbreak.

"You've got to see what is in balance," Brahmbhatt told Military.com in an interview. "What is in balance is the demoralizing situation for sailors who you may not be able to retain."

Both authors noted that the Navy's current approach to controlling COVID-19 -- strict isolation -- while effective, is not sustainable.

"They isolate the crew before the crew gets on, they isolate the crew when it's on, and they isolate the crew when it comes back," Martin said. "That's effective, but it's also horribly demoralizing."

The report recommends that the Navy give more training on infectious disease to its medical staff; engineer ships with better ventilation; and improve how medical and operational commanders communicate with one another.

Brahmbhatt, who is an epidemiologist, stressed that it is key the Navy tackle these issues now because the threat of new viruses or diseases is not going away with COVID-19.

"When we send our ships to South Asia, we know that somebody may get the Nipah virus, may get a Hantavirus, may get one of the novel viruses that we haven't seen in human beings," she explained.

"For the unknown threats that are out there -- we have to be ready to deal with them somehow, somewhere," Brahmbhatt said.

-- Konstantin Toropin can be reached at konstantin.toropin@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @ktoropin.

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