Hospital Ship USNS Comfort to Start Accepting COVID-19 Patients

Mike Schuler
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April 7, 2020
The USNS hospital ship Comfort is seen docked at Pier 90 on Manhattan’s West Side as the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues in New York City, New York, U.S., April 7, 2020. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

The U.S. Department of Defense has opened the hospital ship USNS Comfort to patients with COVID-19 in order to relieve pressure on New York area hospitals, the Northern Command announced Tuesday. 

“Effective immediately, USNS Comfort will accept trauma, emergency and urgent care patients without regard to their COVID-19 status,” the Northern Command said in a statement.  

The Military Sealift Command hospital ship USNS Comfort (T-AH 20) arrived in New York on March 30, 2020, bringing with it 1,000 hospital beds and hundreds of medical staff in support of the nation’s COVID-19 response efforts. Its intention was to serve as a referral hospital only for non-COVID-19 patients admitted to shore-based hospitals. 

Despite the extra capacity that the ship brings, the government has come under fire for it being under utilized with only about 20 patients admitted on board as of last Thursday, the New York Times reported.

A makeshift hospital setup at New York’s Javits Center continues to serve as the U.S. Department of Defense’s primary facility for treating COVID-19 patients. It is now also accepting COVID-19 patients.

“For the Comfort to really … be a part of the relief for the pressure on the New York City hospitals, we have to be able to do this,” said Navy Vice Adm. Andrew Lewis, Commander of the U.S. 2nd Fleet, during a telephone news conference. “This is where there are a tremendous number of patients in the hospitals, most of which are COVID-positive.”

Comfort is planned to focus high severity COVID patients, with more mild cases being handled by Javits Center.

“The ability to take COVID-19 patients on board USNS Comfort provides increased capability to care for high severity COVID-positive cases, allowing the Javits New York Medical Station to focus on lower severity COVID-positive patients,” the Northern Command said.

Crew Member Sick

Also on board Comfort are over 70 civil service mariners responsible for operating the ship and navigation. On Monday, Politico reported that one of those crew members had tested positive for COVID-19 and is currently being isolated along with others on the ship.

Allowing COVID-19-positive patients on board raises further questions about the safety of workers, both medical staff and its crew members.

Vice Adm. Lewis said that to ensure the ship’s crew remains healthy, the ship has been divided into a “red zone” where patients are located and a “green zone,” where the ship’s non-medical crew operates.

“We’re fully transitioned,” Lewis said. “We’ve done some minor configurations on ship, and there is no risk to any of the patients that are non-COVID at this time. We were able to isolate within the ship non-COVID patients from the COVID-positive patients.”

Lewis also added that there are currently no plans for the hospital ship USNS Mercy, now in Los Angeles, to make the same transition.

U.S. Northern Command is leading Defense Department operations against COVID-19 in the United States.

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