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Local News

USNS Comfort with 1,000 Beds Only Has 20 Patients in New York

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USNS Comfort with 1,000 Beds Only Has 20 Patients in New York

2020-04-03 17:05:30

By Laura Tucker, Staff writer; Image: USNS Comfort passing by Statue of Liberty (Image source: MusikAnimal vis Wikimedia Commons)

What was supposed to be a saving grace this week turned out to be not so, at least not yet. The Navy hospital ship U.S.N.S Comfort was sent to New York City to help relieve the city's overloaded and overworked hospitals dealing with the coronavirus pandemic. However, after its arrival in New York Harbor earlier this week, it still only had 20 patients on Thursday, despite having 1,000 beds. 

Another Navy hospital ship, the U.S.N.S. Mercy, is docked in Los Angeles, California, currently, and it only had 15 patients on Thursday.

"If I'm blunt about it, it's a joke," said Michael Dowling, the head of Northwell Health, New York's largest hospital system. "Everyone can say, 'Thank you for putting up these wonderful places and opening up these cavernous halls.' But we're in a crisis here; we're in a battlefield." 

The reason the Comfort was sent to New York was to take the pressure off the other hospital systems. The goal was for the Comfort to treat the patients who do not have COVID-19.

Donald Trump traveled from the White House last week to Norfolk, Virginia, to see the ship off as it left for its mission in New York where he said it would play a "critical role." The Monday arrival was heralded amongst so many grim moments the past few weeks. 

However, military protocols and bureaucratic red tape has kept most of the Comfort's beds empty. The ship will not allow anyone with the virus on board, but it also has a list of 49 other medical conditions that it won't allow on the ship.

Ambulances are not allowed to take patients directly to the ship. They have to first take them to a city hospital to be evaluated. This includes a COVID-19 test. They can then be picked up again and taken to the Comfort. 

Officials said at a Thursday morning briefing that there were three patients who have been transferred to the Comfort. Later in the day there were all of 20. "We're bringing them on as fast as we can bring them on," said Navy spokeswoman Elizabeth Baker.

She said on Friday the Comfort would start screening patients for the coronavirus on site. They would have their temperature taken and would also need to fill out a short questionnaire.  

Dowling talked about tearing his hospitals apart to retrofit them and use lobbies and conference rooms as hospital wards. On March 20 the hospital system had 100 COVID-19 patients. By Thursday there were 2,800, with 25 percent of them in serious condition in intensive care units.

In that system and others across the city, hospitals are backed up. Before even receiving life-saving treatment on a ventilator, they have died in hallways. Doctors and nurses are getting sick as well after being forced to reuse protective gear repeatedly. The city is now running low on body bags. While some people are worried about toilet paper, the health-care system is worried it won't have enough body bags. 

Yet, there aren't many non-coronavirus patients. Residents of New York have been in seclusion in their homes, leading to fewer car accident injuries, gunshots, and construction accidents. If the Comfort refuses to take COVID-19 patients, Dowling points out there are few others to send.

Because the disease is so widespread, dividing patients up is pointless to him. "It's pretty ridiculous," he said. "If you're not going to help us with the people we need help with, what's the purpose?" 

Regarding Dowling's struggles, the Defense Department referred to Trump's statement about the Comfort in his press briefing. He had only said the ship was not accepting coronavirus patients.

Also on Thursday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo reached an agreement with Trump to bring some of the COVID-19 patients to the Javits Convention Center in Manhattan which is being used by the military as an alternative hospital and now has 2,500 beds. 

"I asked President Trump this morning to consider the request and the urgency of the matter, and the president has just informed me that he granted New York's request," said Cuomo in a statement.

Capt. Patrick Amersbach, the commanding officer of Comfort, said at a news conference that for now, he has orders to only accept patients who have tested negative.  

If the ship is ordered to take on coronavirus patients, he says the ship could be reconfigured for that. "If our mission shifts, we do what we can to meet that mission," he said.

There was much done already to accept the patients. It's meant for treating young, injured soldiers from gunshots and bombings. COVID-19 patients are older and dealing with a disease that is stilling being figured out by the world's top medical researchers. 

The ship's crew isolated themselves for two weeks before leaving on the New York mission. They must now remain onboard throughout until the mission in New York is finished.

While the ship was used after Puerto Rico was hit by Hurricane Maria in 2017, it still only treated a handful of patients each day. A military physician who had previously served on the Navy's hospital ships says conditions are meant for soldiers and not really civilians. There are narrow bunked cots instead of regular hospital beds. 

However, military physicians are well-trained, despite normally being in battlefield conditions. "As military doctors," said the physician, " they would absolutely do their best."

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