The US Navy is deploying a hospital ship to assist health care providers in New York who could be strained with resources amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the Navy announced that efforts to deploy the USNS Comfort to the state were underway. Cuomo said his discussions with President Donald Trump on the coronavirus were productive, and the plan was approved. The governor activated the state's National Guard on March 10, as the number of cases in the state jumped to over 2,300 as of Wednesday morning.
"This will be an extraordinary step," Cuomo said on Wednesday morning. "It's literally a floating hospital, which will add capacity."
Defense Secretary Mark Esper previously confirmed he ordered the Navy to "lean forward" in deploying two of its hospital ships, the Comfort and the USNS Mercy, during a press conference on Tuesday. The Comfort, based in the East Coast at Norfolk, Virginia, is currently undergoing maintenance; while the Mercy is at port in San Diego, California.
Navy officials stressed that preparations for the Comfort, which have been "expedited," will take weeks before it is ready to assist. The Mercy is expected to be ready to assist "before the end of this month," Esper said.
The ships are staffed by 71 civilians and up to 1,200 sailors, according to the Navy. Both ships include 12 fully-equipped operating rooms, a 1,000-bed hospital, medical laboratory, and a pharmacy. The ships also have helicopter decks for transport.
The two ships will specifically focus on trauma cases if deployed. The plan is to alleviate the burden on traditional hospitals dealing with a high number of patients with the coronavirus.
"Our capabilities are focused on trauma," Esper said at the Pentagon. "Whether it's our field hospitals, whether it's our hospital ships ... they don't have necessarily the segregated space as you need to deal with infectious diseases."
"One of the ways by which you can use either field hospitals, hospital ships, or things in between, is to take the pressure off of civilian hospitals when it comes to trauma cases, and open up civilian hospital rooms for infectious diseases," he added.
The extended timeline for the Comfort's deployment was not only incumbent on its scheduled maintenance or the amount of medical equipment on board. The number of qualified medical staff aboard the ship was a primary concern for the Navy, according to Esper.
"The big challenge isn't necessarily the availability of these inventories — it's the medical professionals," Esper said. "All those doctors and nurses either come from our medical treatment facilities or they come from the Reserves."
"We've got to be very conscious of and careful of as we call up these units and use them to support the states, that we aren't robbing Peter to pay Paul, so to speak," Esper added.
Most of the medical staff for the Comfort is based at Portsmouth Naval Medical Center in Virginia. The ship has made several deployments since 1987, including to Puerto Rico for relief efforts after Hurricane Maria in 2017.