France’s only aircraft carrier, the Charles de Gaulle, forced to return to home amid concerns that around 1000 sailors on board may have contracted the COVID-19 novel coronavirus.
The French navy is investigating how the coronavirus infected more than 1,000 sailors aboard the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle, amid growing pressure on government leaders to explain how it could have happened.
The ship, France’s biggest carrier and the flagship of its navy, is undergoing a lengthy disinfection process since returning to its home base in Toulon five days ago.
One person remains in intensive care and some 20 others hospitalized, navy spokesman Cmdr. Eric Lavault told The Associated Press.
Two of four U.S. sailors serving aboard the Charles de Gaulle as part of an exchange program also tested positive for coronavirus, according to a U.S. Navy statement. A British sailor was aboard another vessel, Lavault said, refusing to reveal the sailor’s health status.
The navy is investigating how so many sailors caught the virus. Last week the aircraft carrier was brought home 10 days early from its Atlantic deployment after some sailors showed symptoms
Defense Minister Florence Parly told lawmakers that 1,081 of the 2,300 people aboard the Charles de Gaulle and its escort vessels have tested positive so far — nearly half the overall personnel.
While the virus has immobilized the immense and important ship, Parly insisted that otherwise “our forces continue to assure the defense of our country at sea, under the sea, on land and in the air.”
An investigation to retrace the paths of the personnel is in progress. Lavault noted that the aircraft carrier made a call in the French port of Brest, on the Atlantic Ocean, had been in the North Sea as part of a “naval diplomacy” mission with NATO partners, and had stopped in Cyprus during an operation in the eastern Mediterranean Sea to join in the fight against the Islamic State group.
With nearly 2,000 sailors on the aircraft carrier alone, there is a constant flow of people frequenting the infirmary. In the North Sea, temperatures sometimes dropped to -5 degrees Celsius (23 F), he said.
The number of infections “rose exponentially” from about April 4-5, and lung scans were taken on suspected cases, Lavault said.
“It’s from this date that the commander decided to alert Navy headquarters to propose ending the operation, a decision taken immediately by the (defense) minister,” he said.
The aircraft carrier was back in its home base at the Mediterranean port of Toulon on April 12.
“We are and will be transparent” about the health situation, the health director Maryline Gygax Genero told the parliamentary commission.
Lavault said the carrier was being cleaned top to bottom, first with high-pressure water at 60 C (140 F), then with an anti-viral product, a process that could take weeks. He said the goal is to get the carrier back to sea sometime in May.
Earlier this month nearly 600 coronavirus cases were confirmed aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt, one of two US aircraft carriers in the western Pacific.
One sailor later died of Covid-19 in Guam, after the ship – which has a total crew of 4,800 – had docked there.
The ship’s captain Brett Crozier was fired after his letter pleading for help with the outbreak was leaked to US media. A public outcry over that dismissal triggered the resignation of acting Navy secretary Thomas Modly.