U.S. Navy Hospital Ships Are Empty as the Coronavirus Pandemic Worsens

The USNS Comfort passes the Statue of Liberty as it enters New York Harbor during the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in New York City, U.S., March 30, 2020. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly
April 3, 2020 Topic: Security Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: USNS ComfortDonald TrumpCoronavirus

U.S. Navy Hospital Ships Are Empty as the Coronavirus Pandemic Worsens

USNS Comfort, the 894-feet-long hospital ship that the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump sent to New York City to help back up area hospitals struggling with the coronavirus pandemic has 1,000 patient beds. And 20 patients as of April 3, 2020. Sister ships USNS Mercy, docked in Los Angeles, at the same time had just 15 patients.

 

USNS Comfort, the 894-feet-long hospital ship that the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump sent to New York City to help back up area hospitals struggling with the coronavirus pandemic has 1,000 patient beds.

And 20 patients as of April 3, 2020. Sister ships USNS Mercy, docked in Los Angeles, at the same time had just 15 patients.

 

The gap is partially the fault of bureaucracy. But the administration’s policies also are to blame. While a hospital ship designed for handling combat casualties isn’t ideal for the kind of treatment that coronavirus patients need, Comfort and Mercy in theory are capable of caring for pandemic victims.

The nearly idle Comfort, which arrived in New York Harbor amid great fanfare on March 30, 2020, wasn’t supposed to treat covid-19 patients. Instead, the plan was for the vessel to treat non-coronavirus cases in order to free up space and resources in civilian hospitals on land.

But with New York City under lockdown on orders of local and state officials, there are fewer non-covid-19 cases in the area than there were before, according to The New York Times, which broke the news of Comfort’s light patient load. “There are fewer injuries from car accidents, gunshots and construction accidents that would require an emergency room visit,” the paper reported.

And those patients that Comfort could handle are slow to reach the vessel. “Ambulances cannot take patients directly to the Comfort; they must first deliver patients to a city hospital for a lengthy evaluation — including a test for the virus — and then pick them up again for transport to the ship,” the Times noted.

“We’re bringing them on as fast as we can bring them on,” Elizabeth Baker, a spokeswoman for the Navy, told the paper.

But Michael Dowling, the head of Northwell Health, New York’s largest hospital system, told the Times that the limits the administration has imposed on Comfort are “a joke,” “Everyone can say, ‘Thank you for putting up these wonderful places and opening up these cavernous halls,’” Dowling said. “But we’re in a crisis here, we’re in a battlefield.”

To be clear, Comfort can adapt to treat pandemic victims. It might require setting up isolation wards and could inconvenience some patients who can’t easily navigate the vessel’s tight quarters. “If our mission shifts, we do what we can to meet that mission,” Capt. Patrick Amersbach, the commanding officer of the medical personnel aboard Comfort, told reporters.

It’s worth noting that the French navy quickly set up isolation wards aboard a Mistral-class amphibious assault ship in order to transport coronavirus patients from the island of Corsica to hospitals on the mainland.

The Navy has come under fire for serious missteps resulting from administration policies during the pandemic. The aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt, moored in Guam, suffered an outbreak of covid-19 that threatened to spread throughout the vessel’s 4,000-person crew.

After the Navy refused to allow Capt. Brett Crozier to send ashore and isolate his crew, Crozier wrote a letter to his superiors begging for help. “Sailors do not need to die,” Crozier wrote. The letter leaked to the press, and days later the Navy fired Crozier for “extremely poor judgment.” As the captain left his ship, his assembled crew applauded.

David Axe serves as Defense Editor of the National Interest. He is the author of the graphic novels  War FixWar Is Boring and Machete Squad.