U.S. warship heads to port after coronavirus outbreak

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - At least 18 sailors aboard a U.S. Navy destroyer have tested positive for the new coronavirus, U.S. officials said on Friday, dealing another blow to the military as it faces fallout over its handling of an outbreak on an aircraft carrier last month.

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The Navy confirmed a Reuters report on the outbreak aboard the Kidd, a destroyer that was on a counter-narcotics mission, and said the number of those infected with the virus on the vessel was expected to rise.

In a statement, the Navy said a sailor who had become sick was medically evacuated off the ship and later tested positive for the virus, prompting further testing of the crew that led to the discovery of additional positive cases.

A specialized medical team has been sent to the ship to carry out contact tracing and more onsite testing, it added.

A Navy spokesman said the Kidd was currently operating in the Pacific.

Asked about the Reuters report during a briefing, Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said the ship was preparing to return to port where it would be cleaned.

The Kidd is believed to be the only Navy ship currently at sea with coronavirus cases. Questions are likely to be raised about how the virus came onboard and why procedures before the ship’s deployment did not detect or stop its spread.

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The aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt was in the Asia-Pacific region earlier this month when it was hit by a coronavirus outbreak, forcing it to eventually dock in Guam. One sailor who was infected died, and nearly 850 out of the roughly 4,800 personnel on the ship have tested positive for the virus.

The Roosevelt’s commander had called on Navy leadership to evacuate the vast majority of his crew and to disinfect the ship in a letter that leaked to the public, raising further questions about the Trump administration’s handling of the outbreak.

The letter, which was obtained by a number of news outlets, set in motion a series of events that led to Captain Brett Crozier’s firing and the resignation of acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly.

U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper will be meeting the chief of naval operations later on Friday to discuss the findings of an investigation into the events surrounding Crozier’s firing.

The Kidd is part of the Trump administration’s deployment of more warships and aircraft to the Caribbean and Eastern Pacific to fight drug cartels.

Announcing the deployment earlier this month, the Trump administration said the deployments were also aimed at preventing “corrupt actors” like Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro from exploiting the pandemic to smuggle more narcotics.

Maduro’s government has denied the allegation and accused the U.S. government of trying to distract the public from its handling of the outbreak.

U.S. President Donald Trump has been criticized for initially downplaying the threat to Americans posed by the coronavirus, which first surfaced in China late last year and has since spread worldwide.

The U.S. death toll from COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the coronavirus, topped 50,000 on Friday, having doubled in 10 days, according to a Reuters tally. The number of Americans known to be infected surpassed 875,000.

Reporting by Idrees Ali and Phil Stewart; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Paul Simao