In a sea change from its previous return, the USS Theodore Roosevelt docked Tuesday at North Island following a six-month deployment across the Pacific — with only three COVID-19 cases onboard.
During its first deployment in 2020, the aircraft carrier was sidelined in Guam for months due to a COVID outbreak that saw more than 1,200 sailors infected, about one-quarter of the ship’s crew.
Tuesday, Rear Adm. Doug Verissimo, commander of Carrier Strike Group Nine, recalled making a ship announcement last year that the San Diego the crew was coming home to was different from the one they had left.
“I was happy to make that same announcement this time, and it’s in a much better direction,” he told news media at Naval Air Station North Island. “Last time I wasn’t able to kiss my wife in front of the press.”
On this deployment, Verissimo said, vaccine was available for over a month, and a “large majority” of the crew took the shots.
“Some folks deferred for an alternate vaccine choice,” he said. “And some were not sure they were going to take it. But we are a very robust and healthy crew, and have been working well together. “
Verissimo said three asymptomatic cases were spotted via random testing when the carrier took on fresh sailors.
“I would say the lessons we learned aboard TR have been incorporated across business and across government across the United States,” he said. “This crew really did grab and understand how to beat back the virus.”
He said 5,000 people were close together. But isolation berthings and very thorough contact tracing helped prevent the spread.
“The crew is much happier now that we’re vaccinated,” the admiral said. “Vaccinated people don’t have to wear masks.” They were glad to be able to see their shipmates’ smiles and emotions.
The Nimitz-class carrier left San Diego last December for the second deployment its crew embarked upon in 2020, which took the ship about 48,000 nautical miles to the U.S. 3rd Fleet and 7th Fleet areas of operation and back. It made no port calls.
“Whether it was operating in the Indo-Pacific and the South China Sea or high northern latitudes in the Gulf of Alaska, Carrier Strike Group Nine demonstrated that the U.S. Navy is ready for anything,” Verissimo said. “We met the challenges that COVID-19 brought head-on and successfully deployed forward to work with our allies and partners from Australia, India, Japan, Malaysia and South Korea.”
According to the Navy, the carrier conducted security operations in the Indo-Pacific region, as well as bilateral exercises with the Indian Navy and Air Force, Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force, Royal Australian Navy, Republic of Korea Navy and the Royal Malaysian Air Force.
The crew also took part in the Northern Edge 2021 joint field training exercise in the Gulf of Alaska earlier this month.
“Our presence in the Indo-Pacific had a significant impact on maintaining stability and security in the region that would not have been possible without every single sailor aboard,” said Capt. Eric Anduze, Theodore Roosevelt’s commanding officer.
Anduze said the TR would be in port for the next six or seven weeks, with “quite a bit of time before she sees her next deployment. …. Everybody will get a minimum of four to five months of coming home almost every night.”
Then-Capt. Brett Crozier was fired after his letter to Navy leaders, which asked for more help in managing the virus, went public. Navy Secretary Thomas Modly, who fired Crozier, resigned shortly afterward following a leak of an audio recording, in which he openly criticized Crozier to the ship’s crew over the carrier’s public address system.
An ensuing investigation by the Office of Inspector General blamed ineffective social distancing and the premature release of sailors from quarantine as the primary causes of increased COVID-19 infection onboard.
— City News Service contributed to this report.