Top Stories 2021: COVID-19 Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic continued to affect the Navy’s functioning, even as vaccines were rolled out to the fleet. The past year brought ebbs and flows in terms of the number of cases with peaks brought by the Delta and Omicron variants of SARS-CoV-2. As of Dec. 22, the Navy has seen a total of 90,469 […]

Hospital Corpsman 2nd Class Omar Bowen, left, assigned to Navy Medicine Readiness and Training Unit Bahrain, administers the COVID-19 vaccine to Lt. j.g. Kory Hill, anti-terrorism officer aboard amphibious transport dock ship USS San Diego (LPD-22), in Manama, Bahrain on Feb. 26, 2021. US Navy Photo

The COVID-19 pandemic continued to affect the Navy’s functioning, even as vaccines were rolled out to the fleet. The past year brought ebbs and flows in terms of the number of cases with peaks brought by the Delta and Omicron variants of SARS-CoV-2.

As of Dec. 22, the Navy has seen a total of 90,469 cases of COVID-19 and a total of 181 deaths, including active-duty, civilians and reservists. In 2021, the Navy lost 15 sailors to COVID-19, with the most recent death on Dec. 18.

Vaccine Mandate

Steady sticklers with Navy Medicine Readiness and Training Command (NMRTC) Bremerton began a Shot Exercise to administer the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine to all unvaccinated active duty personnel assigned to commands in the nation’s third largest fleet concentration area of Puget Sound, Aug. 31, 2021. US Navy Photo

The COVID-19 vaccination mandate for the Department of Defense was the biggest military story of the pandemic. All branches of the military required personnel — active-duty and reservists — to be vaccinated, although service each had its own deadlines.

Civilians who were employed by the Department of Defense and contractors also saw vaccination requirements, although they were laxer and allowed for testing regimens rather than vaccination.

The Navy set Nov. 28 as the deadline for active-duty sailors to be fully vaccinated, which meant being two weeks post the last shot — the second of the two-dose Moderna or Pfizer vaccines or only shot of the one-dose Johnson and Johnson.

Reservists had until Dec. 28 to be fully vaccinated.

As of Dec. 22, 5,361 active-duty sailors remained unvaccinated, although that does include sailors who were not yet fully vaccinated but were in the process of being vaccinated, USNI News previously reported. The number also includes sailors who have exemptions or were waiting to hear if they would be granted an exemption.

The Navy received 2,844 requests for religious exemptions, but the sea service has yet to grant one, consistent with its history. The Navy had not granted a religious exemption for any vaccine in the past seven years, USNI News previously reported.

There were 140 temporary medical exemptions granted, as well as seven permanent ones. So far, there have not been any permanent medical or religious exemptions granted for reservists, according to the Navy’s most recent COVID-19 update.

The Navy has begun the process of separating those who continue to refuse to get vaccinated, USNI News previously reported. Although the Navy is trying to keep as many sailors as possible, if a sailor does not get vaccinated, they will be processed for separation.

There are some sailors who will be able to leave the service instead of being vaccinated if they are close to their retirement or discharge date.

Those who did not meet the deadline but are getting vaccinated will have their cases adjudicated by the chief of naval personnel, who is the COVID consolidated disposition authority.

The Navy began vaccinating sailors in early 2021 with the sailors of the Dwight D. Eisenhower Carrier Strike Group, who received vaccines prior to deployment, USNI News reported.
USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN-69) spent 206 consecutive days at sea as a result of the pandemic in 2020.

Ship Outbreaks

USS Milwaukee (LCS 5) steams through the ocean, on Dec 16, 2021. US Navy Photo

Cases of COVID-19 broke out on multiple ships, as the Navy — and the world — struggled to contain the virus.

Three sailors tested positive for COVID-19 on USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71), leading to testing for the other 900 sailors aboard. No other cases were detected, USNI News reported in February.

USS Philippine Sea (CG-58) spent nearly a month in port in Bahrain after 20 crew members tested positive at the end of February. USS San Diego (LPD-22) also pulled into port in Bahrain at the end of February, and between the two ships, approximately 40 sailors and Marines had contracted the disease.

Littoral Combat Ship USS Milwaukee (LCS-5) ended the year in port at Naval Station Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, after sailors aboard tested positive for the disease. It is not clear what variant of SARS-CoV-2 infected the sailors, who are all fully immunized.

Lost Sailors

A sailor plays ‘Taps.’ US Navy Photo

The Navy has lost 17 sailors since the COVID-19 pandemic began in December 2019, according to a USNI News tally. A majority of sailors who died from disease-related complications did so in 2021.

The following sailors died in 2021 from COVID-19:

  • Logistics Specialist 2nd Class Abdigafar Salad Warsame, 52, died in January.
  • Navy boot camp instructor Chief Quartermaster Herbert Rojas, 59, died on Feb. 2.
    Information Systems Technician (Submarines) Second Class Petty Officer Cody Andrew-Godfredson Myers, 26, died on Feb. 4.
  • Aviation Support Equipment Technician 1st Class Marcglenn Orcullo, 42, died on Feb. 12.
  • Chief Hull Technician Justin Huf, 39, died on Feb. 22.
  • Senior Chief Fire Controlman Michael Wilson, 45, died on April 29.
  • Capt. Corby Ropp, 48, an active-duty Navy doctor, died in July.
  • Master-at-Arms First Class Allen Hillman, 47, died on July 26.
  • Personnel Specialist First Class Debrielle Richardson, 29, died on Aug. 13
  • Marine Corps Sgt. Edmar Ismael, 27, an electrician with Support Platoon, Engineer Support Company, 8th Engineer Support Battalion, died on Aug. 14
  • Aviation Support Equipment Technician 2nd Class Robert McMahon, 41, died also on Aug. 14.
  • Gas Turbine System Technician (Mechanical) 1st Class Ryan Crosby, 39, died Sept. 19.
  • Master-at-Arms Senior Chief Michael Haberstumpf, 42, assigned to the Joint Special Operations Intelligence Brigade at Fort Bragg, died Oct. 10.
  • Electronics Technician First Class William Mathews, 47, died on Nov. 24.
  • Lt. Ivy Quintana-Martinez, 35, died on Dec. 18.

Chinese Foreign Ministry: U.S. South China Sea Movements Do ‘No Good’ for Region

The Chinese foreign ministry on Monday denounced the recent movement of a U.S. aircraft carrier to the South China Sea after Beijing sent military aircraft close to Taiwan. “It does no good to regional peace and stability for the United States to frequently send military vessels and aircraft to the South China Sea to show […]

The aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71) approaches the fleet replenishment oiler USNS John Ericsson (T-AO 194) during a replenishment-at-sea Jan. 22, 2021. US Navy Photo

The Chinese foreign ministry on Monday denounced the recent movement of a U.S. aircraft carrier to the South China Sea after Beijing sent military aircraft close to Taiwan.

“It does no good to regional peace and stability for the United States to frequently send military vessels and aircraft to the South China Sea to show off muscles,” said Zhao Lijian, a spokesman for China’s foreign ministry, according to a transcript of a Monday press conference.

Zhao said Beijing maintains its view that Taiwan is “an inalienable part of the Chinese territory.”

“[R]efrain from sending any wrong signals to the ‘Taiwan independence’ forces so as to avoid damaging China-U.S. relations and peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait,” Zhao said.

The foreign ministry’s comments come after both Beijing flew military aircraft near Taiwan and the Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group moved into the South China Sea over the weekend. According to Reuters, China dispatched aircraft on Saturday and Sunday into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ).

U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price said the U.S. “notes with concern” China’s efforts to “intimidate” countries in the region like Taiwan and that China should stop putting pressure on Taipei.

“We urge Beijing to cease its military, diplomatic, and economic pressure against Taiwan and instead engage in meaningful dialogue with Taiwan’s democratically elected representatives. We will stand with friends and allies to advance our shared prosperity, security, and values in the Indo-Pacific region — and that includes deepening our ties with democratic Taiwan,” Price said in a Jan. 23 statement.

“The United States will continue to support a peaceful resolution of cross-strait issues, consistent with the wishes and best interests of the people on Taiwan. The United States maintains its longstanding commitments as outlined in the Three Communiqués, the Taiwan Relations Act, and the Six Assurances,” he continued. “We will continue to assist Taiwan in maintaining a sufficient self-defense capability. Our commitment to Taiwan is rock-solid and contributes to the maintenance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait and within the region.”

Amid the weekend flights, U.S. Pacific Fleet said in a statement that the Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group moved into the South China Sea on Saturday and would perform drills and flight operations while in the waters.

“We all benefit from free and open access to the seas and our operations represent our commitment to maintaining regional security and stability,” Capt. Eric Anduze, the commanding officer of Theodore Roosevelt, said in a statement.

Theodore Roosevelt is deployed to the Indo-Pacific region for the second time in a year.

The Trump administration took a critical tone toward China and made concerns over Beijing’s actions a focal point of U.S. policy, and the new Biden administration appears poised to also pursue a tougher position on China.

“[L]et me just say that I also believe that President Trump was right in taking a tougher approach to China,” Antony Blinken, President Joe Biden’s pick to lead the State Department, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week during his confirmation hearing. “I disagreed very much with the way that he went about it in a number of areas, but the basic principle was the right one, and I think that’s actually helpful to our foreign policy.”

Blinken also told lawmakers the new administration would maintain America’s commitment to guaranteeing that Taiwan has its own defense capabilities.

“I would also like to see Taiwan playing a greater role around the world including in international organizations. When those organizations don’t require the status of a country to be a member, they should become members. When it does there are other ways that they can participate,” Blinken said. “And I think our own engagement with Taiwan should be looked at and indeed that’s being done, as you know, some regulations were promulgated by the outgoing Secretary of State. We’re going to take a hard look at those pursuant to the Taiwan Assurance Act. And we will – we will look at that.”

Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group Begins Second 2020 Deployment

Aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71), its escorts and its embarked air wing began its second deployment in a year, the service announced on Wednesday. The deployment of the Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group began at the completion of a sustainment exercise that began shortly after the carrier left San Diego earlier in December. “Completing […]

USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71) transits the Pacific Ocean on Dec. 18, 2020. US Navy Photo

Aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71), its escorts and its embarked air wing began its second deployment in a year, the service announced on Wednesday.

The deployment of the Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group began at the completion of a sustainment exercise that began shortly after the carrier left San Diego earlier in December.

“Completing SUSTEX confirmed that Carrier Strike Group Nine is ready to sail west to preserve freedom of the seas, deter aggression, and if necessary, win against any competitor,” CSG 9 commander Rear Adm. Doug Verissimo, Commander said in a Navy statement.
“The entire strike group team came together during a challenging time to train and ultimately prove that it is ready to answer any call.”

The strike group and the air wing have been in isolation since mid-November ahead of the deployment.

The deployment is the second for the strike group this year. Theodore Roosevelt deployed from January to July in a deployment that was marred by a COVID-19 outbreak that infected more than 1,200 of the 4,800 sailors assigned to the carrier and killed one, Aviation Ordnanceman Chief Petty Officer Charles Robert Thacker Jr.

The so-called double-pump deployment has highlighted how the Navy carrier’s force is under strain with too few hulls available to meet the demands of combatant commanders. Carrier operations are at their highest rate in a decade with several carriers unable to deploy currently in maintenance availabilities, USNI News reported earlier this year. On the East Coast, the Dwight D. Eisenhower Carrier Strike Group plans to deploy early next year for its own double-pump deployment.

The TR CSG is deploying with two escorts from the earlier 2020 deployment – guided-missile cruiser USS Bunker Hill (DDG-52) and guided-missile destroyer USS Russell (DDG-59) as part of Destroyer Squadron 23. The CSG will also include the destroyer USS John Finn (DDG-113).

While the Navy has not indicated where the carrier will deploy, the small number of escorts implies that the strike group will largely stay in the Western Pacific and not relieve USS Nimitz (CVN-68) from its position operating in the Middle East, USNI News understands.

“Our sailors worked incredibly hard to make sure we set sail with a healthy, capable, and ready crew,” Capt. Eric Anduze, Theodore Roosevelt’s commanding officer, said in a statement.
“Our success is a testament to the professionalism and dedication of our team and the support of our families and loved ones.”

An E/A-18G Growler, assigned to the ‘Gray Wolves’ of Electronic Attack Squadron (VAQ) 142) is taxied to a catapult on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71) on Dec. 17, 2020. US Navy Photo

The following is the composition of the TR CSG.

Carrier Strike Group 9
The San Diego-based CSG 9 commands the Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group and is embarked on the carrier.

Aircraft carrier
USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71), homeported in San Diego, Calif.

Carrier Air Wing 11

Carrier Air Wing (CVW) 11, based at Naval Air Station Lemoore, Calif., is embarked aboard Theodore Roosevelt and includes a total of nine squadrons and detachments:

  • The “Tomcatters” of VFA-31 – Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) – from Naval Air Station Oceana, Va.
  • The “Golden Warriors” of VFA-87 from Naval Air Station Oceana, Va.
  • The “Blue Diamonds” of VFA-146 from Naval Air Station Lemoore, Calif.
  • The “Black Knights” of VFA-154 from Naval Air Station Lemoore – Calif.
  • The “Gray Wolves” of VAQ-142 – Electronic Attack Squadron (VAQ) – from Naval Air Station Whidbey Island – Wash.
  • The “Liberty Bells” of VAW-115 – Carrier Airborne Early Warning Squadron (VAW) – from Naval Air Station Point Mugu, Calif.
  • The “Providers” of VRC-30 – Detachment – Fleet Logistics Support Squadron (VRC) – from Naval Air Station North Island, Calif.
  • The “Eight Ballers” of HSC-8 – Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron (HSC) – from Naval Air Station North Island, Calif.
  • The “Wolf Pack” of HSM-75 – Helicopter Maritime Strike Squadron (HSM) – from Naval Air Station North Island, Calif.

Cruiser

  • USS Bunker Hill (CG-52), homeported in San Diego, Calif.

Destroyer Squadron 23
Destroyer Squadron 23 is based in San Diego and is embarked on the carrier.

  • USS Russell (DDG-59), homeported in San Diego, Calif.
  • USS John Finn (DDG-113), homeported in San Diego, Calif.