First Navy hospital ship 'days' away from deployment for coronavirus response


The Navy’s hospital ship on the West Coast is “a matter of days” from leaving its home port of San Diego to help in the coronavirus response, but its East Coast counterpart is still weeks from getting underway, a Navy official told Yahoo News Thursday morning.

The two ships — the Mercy in San Diego and the Comfort in Norfolk, Va. — are being readied for duty, but were each undergoing maintenance when it became clear their assistance would be required to relieve overwhelmed civilian hospitals. For this reason, the Comfort is still “weeks” away from sailing. However, the delay in the Mercy’s departure is related more to the time it takes to assemble the right military medical professionals to sail with it, the Navy official said. “They’re still putting together the medical complement that goes on board,” he said.

Officials announced Wednesday that the Comfort, which has about 1,000 beds and 12 operating theaters, would be heading to New York City harbor, but no West Coast destination has yet been announced for the Mercy. “When it is prepared to sail, we will make a determination on where it is going to go,” Defense Department spokesman Jonathan Hoffman told reporters Wednesday afternoon.

U.S. Navy hospital ship USNS Comfort
U.S. Navy hospital ship the Comfort. (Dieu Nalio Chery/AP)

In a press conference Wednesday, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said he had discussed the Comfort with President Trump. In addition, according to Cuomo, Trump suggested moving some of the military’s mobile field hospitals to New York. “I told the president we would do everything that we need to do to expedite the siting of those facilities,” Cuomo said, adding that he had “a couple of locations” in mind, without naming them.

Cuomo said he was responding to a projection that New York would need 110,000 hospital beds, including 37,000 intensive care setups with ventilators, compared with the state’s current capacity of 53,000 beds and 3,000 ventilators. But the governor’s characterization of what Trump had told him about the timing of the Comfort’s deployment — “The president said he would dispatch that immediately” — was at odds with what Pentagon officials announced at a press conference later on Wednesday.

The hospital ships’ mission will be to relieve hospitals ashore of some of the burden of treating patients not suffering from COVID-19 (the disease caused by the coronavirus), according to a brief Navy statement. “The Comfort and Mercy will not deploy to treat COVID patients, but will be made available to assist with treatment of other patients in coastal locations where local health professionals are necessarily focused on a large number of COVID cases,” the Navy said.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo delivers remarks at a news conference
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo at a news conference on March 2 regarding the first confirmed case of coronavirus in New York state. (Andrew Kelly/Reuters)

Current plans call for the ships to deploy with the active duty staff that would typically accompany them to a war zone, according to Air Force Brig. Gen. Paul Friedrichs, joint staff surgeon of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, speaking at the same Pentagon press conference as Hoffman. However, that was likely to change, he said. “These ships are designed for trauma and for combat casualties, and so that’s the staff that we’re planning to deploy with it right now,” he said. “We’ll adjust the numbers and the mix of staff based on what we learn from the local leadership.”

But Friedrichs and Hoffman both said that as the military selects the personnel for the ships and the field hospitals, it will take into account the needs of the local military communities that will inevitably lose access to some care if their doctors and nurses are deployed. Picking active duty personnel was the fastest way to fill the slots, according to Hoffman.

Friedrichs did not rule out calling retired military medical personnel back onto active duty, but he said the same issues applied as calling reservists to active duty: In most cases mobilizing and deploying a medical professional to one location deprives another location of care. “Taking them out of the civilian community may not necessarily be the right risk-benefit trade-off,” he said.

For that reason, as the Pentagon has put field hospital units responsible for more than 1,000 beds on alert, it has picked only active duty units, Friedrichs said.

He declined to state exactly how many field hospital beds in total the military has at its disposal, but he detailed the different types of hospitals each service could provide.

The Air Force’s mobile deployment units, known as an expeditionary medical system, have 25 beds and “are rapidly deployable, usually by air,” he said. The Army has combat support hospitals, which are much larger and can deploy by air or ground, as well as smaller field hospitals, which have about 32 beds each, while the Navy has something called an expeditionary medical facility, which has 150 beds, he said.

The USNS Mercy docked at Naval Base San Diego on Wednesday
The USNS Mercy docked at Naval Base San Diego on Wednesday. (Gregory Bull/AP)

The Pentagon is waiting to see how and where the pandemic develops before deciding how to deploy its limited hospital resources, according to Friedrichs. “We’re hoping to better understand where there’s demand on the hospital system that exceeds that hospital system’s capacity, and then we’ll work with [the Department of Health and Human Services] as the lead federal agency for this to decide what’s the best capability for us to help with that,” he said.

Hoffman underlined the consequential nature of those decisions. “This is our reserve, the whole of government’s reserve,” he said of the military’s tent hospitals. “Once we deploy that reserve in one place, we don’t have the ability to move it to another place.”

Hoffman also made a plea for state and local officials to tell the Pentagon what they needed help with, rather than to ask for specific units or capabilities. “The military works well if you tell us what the problem you’re trying to solve is, not the resource you need,” he said. “Then we can come back and say, ‘Here’s the problem you have, here’s what we can do to help.’”

As an example of a state official asking for a specific capability, Hoffman cited a governor who asked the Pentagon for swabs used to test for the coronavirus. But that unnamed governor might be in luck because earlier this week, according to Hoffman, an Air National Guard unit flew 500,000 swabs to be used for coronavirus testing from Italy to Memphis, Tenn., where they were loaded onto a Federal Express aircraft and distributed around the country, based on directions from the Department of Health and Human Services.

The origin of the swabs was not immediately clear, but Friedrichs’s comments indicated that they came from the Italian government. “This is, I believe, a great example of how nations are working together to ensure that we’re meeting the global demand,” he said.

USNS Comfort
USNS Comfort, anchored off the coast of Haiti in 2010. (Chelsea Kennedy/U.S. Navy/via Reuters)


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