Navy apologizes for COVID-19 infections on ship, defends mission

The Panshi Fast Combat Support Ship (CNA file photo)

TAIPEI (CNA) — Taiwan’s Navy on Sunday apologized for a cluster infection of the new coronavirus disease (COVID-19) on a goodwill mission in the Pacific, but it defended the mission and the preparations made.

Navy Deputy Commander Mei Chia-shu (梅家樹) made the apology at a Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC) briefing on Sunday and said the incident would not affect the Navy’s combat readiness.

As of Sunday, 24 people on the mission had been confirmed as having COVID-19, the first cases of the disease to hit Taiwan’s military.

The infected sailors were all serving on the Panshi Fast Combat Support Ship, part of a three-ship flotilla that visited Palau from March 12 to 15 for this year’s goodwill and midshipmen training mission.

The flotilla returned to its home port in Zuoying in southern Taiwan on April 9, but people on the ships could not disembark until April 15 because of a CECC requirement that ships must have visited their last port of call 30 days before people can enter Taiwan.

One of the criticisms of the mission has focused on photos circulating on social media of participants in the mission not wearing masks while taking part in outdoor activities in Palau.

Mei said Sunday that decision was made after consulting with Taiwan’s embassy in Palau, as no COVID-19 cases had been reported in the Pacific nation at that time.

The question over not using masks was raised despite uncertainty over where the infections originated.

On Saturday, Health Minister Chen Shih-chung (陳時中), who is also the CECC chief, said the participants may have contracted the disease in Palau, but he backed off that comment on Sunday, saying the issue was still being investigated.

Others have taken the military to task for proceeding with the mission in the first place amid the COVID-19 outbreak.

Ministry of National Defense (MND) spokesman Shih Shun-wen (史順文) said the mission was carefully planned, and the trip was shortened out of consideration for the outbreak.

At the same time, Vice Defense Minister Chang Che-ping (張哲平) said the flotilla brought roughly 30,000 masks on the trip, enough for every person to have about a mask per day for 45 days.

Also on board were other health protection items such as alcohol and protective clothing, he said.

Military personnel take temperature of a man before he enter a military academy in Taipei Sunday.

Following the initial discovery of the cluster infection, the MND issued an order on Saturday requiring all men and woman in uniform to take their temperatures twice a day and wear surgical face masks at their bases all the time.

Aside from these measures, the MND also announced that classes will be suspended for two weeks at the R.O.C. Naval Academy and Fu Hsing Kang College, military academies attended by some of the students on the goodwill mission, which also included naval officers and personnel.

In a separate statement issued Sunday afternoon, the MND said it will form a task force to thoroughly investigate the case, and those responsible for the lapses will be held accountable.