Ever since the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) began spreading in the San Diego community in early March, military leaders here have been challenged to balance their mission obligations with the need to protect the health of personnel.
Some service members and their families are questioning that balancing act. They're criticizing Navy leaders' decisions and noting the variety of ways various units are responding to coronavirus outbreaks.
The most visible example of this questioning was a letter publicized last week from Captain Brett Crozier of the San Diego-based carrier Theodore Roosevelt to Navy brass, urging them to provide more resources and to evacuate 90 percent of the personnel on the ship after an outbreak.
The Navy started hundreds of the crew last week but Crozier also was relieved of command. On Sunday a New York Times story reported Crozier has tested positive of the virus along with at leasst 155 crew members.
A similar, less public chorus of questioning arose about the Navy's response to COVID-19 underway at military units throughout the San Diego region.
Every base in San Diego had reported cases of the coronavirus before a Defense department-wide gag order was issued on Monday, curtailing what can be said about the cases, including where they are.
In order to protect sailors from reprisals, the Union-Tribune is withholding the names of sailors and family members who spoke to us.
At Naval Base San Diego several sailors on the base and attached to ships have tested positive for COVID-19.
One sailor on the base said he is bothered by the Pentagon's decision to stop providing information to the public about where and on what ships service members are testing positive.
“There's a black hole of information at the lowest level,” the sailor said.
“Most of your employees are down at lower levels and they're not getting critical information like the cases on bases and where on base it's happening. We're all in the dark — some of those people who tested positive live in the barracks.”
The sailor said people in the community should be wary of what the Navy won't talk about.
“I think the leadership in San Diego right now and the community at large needs to be very worried about what they're doing on that base right now,” the sailor said.
The sailor said that Navy leadership is still proceeding with much of the service's routine training, as though there is not a global pandemic killing thousands.
The sailor said other sailors from ships are still congregating in group training at gun ranges at bases throughout San Diego, including at Naval Air Station North Island.
“A lot of these O-6's (Navy captains) and people with stars on their shoulders are keeping policies in place as if we are at war,” the sailor said. “But the whole world has pressed pause — why are we doing gun shoots for people on ships who aren't going anywhere?”
Cmdr. Patrick Evans, a spokesman for Naval Surface Forces Pacific, said that while protecting personnel is a priority, the service still has a job to do.
“Protecting our people has remained a DoD (Department of Defense) priority from the start,” Evans said in an email. “We must take those prudent measures to limit COVID-19's spread, while also ensuring our people are trained and ready to defend the nation.”
Some family members of sailors on board the amphibious transport dock Somerset also are unhappy with how the Navy is reacting to the virus. The Somerset, along with two other amphibious ships in San Diego, are keeping their crews on board even while the ships are in port.
“I'm concerned whether the commanding officer is taking this virus seriously,” one Somerset family member said. “We're told not to congregate, yet he's got 400 sailors confined to the ship.”
Other ships, such as the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln, have instituted rotating, minimal daily manning requirements, to keep as many sailors as possible home each day.
Jonathan Hoffman, a Defense department spokesman, said Friday that disparate measures and directives across the military will continue, because one centralized directive from the top will not work for everyone.
“We will not stand down; we will trust our commanders to do what is best for their troops,” Hoffman said during Friday's Pentagon press briefing.
“We think the system that has been put in place has been effective. We're going to stick with that process.”
The hospital ship Mercy is one of the most visible symbols of the military's response to the coronavirus pandemic.
The Mercy left San Diego for Los Angeles March 23 and arrived four days later. Its mission, the Navy says, is to relieve LA hospitals of non-coronavirus patients, so they can focus on treating those who are symptomatic of COVID-19.
One San Diego-based corpsman says Mercy crew members are worried about a shortage of personal protective equipment and medical supplies. Medical personnel were each issued one protective mask and told to avoid using it or switching it out for new ones, unless it becomes hard to breathe, the crew member said.
“We don't feel like we're being protected — we're being thrown onto the front lines,” the corpsman said. “We weren't tested (for COVID-19) and we're treating patients that are old, sick and wounded.”
Cmdr. John Fage, a 3rd Fleet spokesman, said in an interview Friday there is no shortage of supplies on the ship. He denied that Mercy leadership told the crew to resist using masks.
“Mercy leadership has not told the crew that,” Fage said. “The ship is equipped with the appropriate personal protective equipment…. Protecting crew has been and will continue to be a top priority.”
So far the ship has been treating at least 15 patients as of Thursday, the Navy said. None had COVID-19.
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