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Senators demand probe of Navy’s COVID-19 response: It has ‘no idea how many potential hot spots it has’

Capt. Brett Crozier, commanding officer of the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71), addresses the crew Jan. 17, 2020. The Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group is on a scheduled deployment to the Indo-Pacific. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Alexander Williams)

Democratic senators Friday called on the Pentagon Inspector General to investigate the Navy’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and its firing of a captain for raising concerns about its slow response to the outbreak aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt.

One of the lead authors of the letter, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, said the Navy lacks the ability to test sailors for the coronavirus on many of its ships, particularly those smaller than the Roosevelt, an aircraft carriers with more than 4,800 crew members.

“How many other Theodore Roosevelts are out there?” Blumenthal, a member of the Armed Services Committee from Connecticut, said in an interview with USA TODAY. “There is testing on some of the bigger ships. The smaller ships don’t have that capability. They just don’t. There are potential hot spots at sea of unknown size and dimension.”

He speculated that the Navy had “no idea how many potential hot spots it has.”

On Thursday, acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly announced the firing of the Roosevelt’s Capt. Brett Crozier, who was forced out after he sent a letter Sunday raising concerns about the Navy’s response to the COVID-19 outbreak aboard his ship and stating sailors could die without prompt assistance. Crozier had the opportunity to bring the issue to the attention of his superior officers, including one aboard the Roosevelt, but instead sent a letter copied to dozens of people, Modly said.

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Medical personnel and assistance were en route when Crozier sent his letter, Modly said.

Crozier’s failure to respect the chain of command resulted in a loss of trust and confidence in his ability to lead, Modly said, explaining at a briefing why he stripped Crozier of command. Adm. Michael Gilday, the chief of naval operations, agreed with the decision to fire Crozier.

On Friday, 137 sailors from the Roosevelt had tested positive for COVID-19, according to the Navy. The Navy has quarantined 576 crew members in hotels in Guam after they tested negatively for the disease. Nobody has been hospitalized. Sailors remain aboard the ship to maintain its nuclear reactors and guard its weapons.

The first three positive cases were found March 24.

As of Friday, 41% of the USS Theodore Roosevelt crew were tested for COVID-19, with 137 positive cases so far.

There have been zero hospitalizations.

Friday evening, 400 more sailors who tested negative will move into Guam hotels for quarantine, bringing the total housed there to 576. As testing continues, the ship will keep enough sailors on board to sustain essential services and sanitize the ship in port.

The 17 Democratic and Independent senators, in their letter to acting Pentagon Inspector General Glenn Fine, asked him to evaluate whether the Navy has taken the proper steps to protect the safety of sailors aboard ships and submarines.

Dwrena Allen, a spokeswoman for the inspector general, confirmed that the letter was being evaluated by Fine’s office.

Blumenthal, in the interview, said the senators are also concerned that Crozier was fired because he embarrassed Pentagon leadership by questioning whether enough was being done to protect sailors’ health.

Discouraging troops from raising concerns about safety and health compounds the problem, he said.

“That’s a recipe for disaster,” Bluementhal said.

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©2020 USA Today

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.