The U.S.N.S. Comfort Is Now Taking Covid-19 Patients. Here’s What to Expect.

The U.S.N.S. Comfort Is Now Taking Covid-19 Patients. Here’s What to Expect.

Before the U.S. Navy hospital ship Comfort steamed up the East Coast from Virginia and docked at Manhattan’s Pier 90 to help the embattled city’s overwhelmed health care system, the floating hospital and its sister vessel, the U.S.N.S. Mercy, had for years operated quietly on the peripheries of American naval power, supporting humanitarian efforts and offering medical care to those in need.

The Comfort arrived in Manhattan on March 30, ostensibly for a similar mission: It would treat noncoronavirus medical cases in order to ease the flow of patients in the city’s civilian hospitals. But as the pandemic’s contours changed — and area hospitals questioned the Trump administration on why the ship had taken on so few patients — the Comfort’s mission has shifted and the ship will now allocate 500 of its 1,000 beds for severe coronavirus cases, Navy officials said on Tuesday.

The announcement that the Comfort will take some of New York’s worst coronavirus cases represents a stark about-face for the Navy, which warned as recently as Friday that the Comfort was “not configured to provide treatment for infectious diseases.” The Mercy, which was sent to Los Angeles, has not been asked to take on coronavirus patients, according to Navy officials.

But keeping the coronavirus off the Comfort has already proved challenging. One unidentified crew member tested positive on Monday and was being kept in isolation, Navy officials said. An additional five patients on board for other ailments later tested positive, but officials said the crew member had not interacted with any patient. On Tuesday, Vice Adm. Michael Lewis, the flag officer overseeing the Comfort’s efforts, said that getting the ship ready for coronavirus patients required “minor configurations on the ship.”

The Comfort’s mission in New York now comes with a new level of complexity by accepting coronavirus cases, raising questions about whether it’s equipped for the task.

The 894-foot-long converted supertankers have been in service since the mid-1980s, and were initially envisioned as waterborne combat hospitals that could be used to triage wounded U.S. troops during a hypothetical war with the Soviet Union. But after the end of the Cold War, the ships took on soft-power, humanitarian relief missions for the U.S. government.

Since 2001, the Comfort and the Mercy have treated more than 550,000 patients, according to the Navy. After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center, the Comfort headed to New York and was on standby as a trauma hospital.

When that need didn’t materialize, the ship provided hot meals, showers, sleeping quarters and clean clothes for roughly 1,000 relief workers each day in the weeks after the attacks, according to the Navy. A few years later, after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the Comfort headed to the Gulf Coast and treated 1,258 patients in New Orleans and Pascagoula, Miss.

More recently, the Comfort anchored off the Colombian coast in May 2019 to help provide medical services as millions of Venezuelans fled their country.

The deployment of hospital ships dates back almost to America’s birth, when the bomb ketch vessel U.S.S. Intrepid was converted in 1803 to treat wounded troops during the Barbary Wars, according to a Navy history of hospital ships.

The Comfort’s docking in Manhattan last month is not the first time that Navy hospital ships have come to New York in response to a pandemic. During the Spanish flu of 1918, previous ships named Comfort and Mercy were briefly stationed in New York to help with overflow patients from hospitals before heading across the Atlantic Ocean to help ferry the war wounded home from Europe during World War I.

The ship holds 1,000 beds and 12 fully equipped operating rooms. In addition to 500 beds for coronavirus patients, the Comfort has 100 intensive care unit beds equipped with ventilators. It arrived in New York with nearly 1,200 personnel and civilian mariners, according to the Navy.

There are concerns about the risk of staff infection within the close quarters of a ship. But according to Matthew L. Nathan, a retired vice admiral who served as the Navy’s surgeon general before his retirement in 2016, comparing a Navy hospital ship to a cruise liner or even the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt — whose crew is grappling its own outbreak — is an apples-to-oranges endeavor.

“These ships are basically a robust community hospital,” he said. “They have modern I.C.U. equipment, a very complete laboratory capability. They can make their own oxygen, they have digital radiography and advanced operating rooms.”

Other vessels have sick or infected people moving freely up and down the passageways, but in a hospital ship, the sick are limited in their movements, he noted. “They can still sequester large numbers of patients who are known to be infected,” Nathan said.

No medical bill, first and foremost. The service provides treatment free of charge on all of its humanitarian and disaster relief operations.

The Comfort has an open bay configuration with some beds in bunk formation, and patients will not have their own room or other amenities like a television, the Navy said, but the ship has the capacity to separate wards of infected patients from everyone else. The ship’s galley can also accommodate kosher and halal meal requirements.

Support animals, visitors, clergy and “non-patient children” are not allowed on board to mitigate risk.

The crew and medical personnel normally live aboard the ship. But in order to keep them safe during this mission, the ship’s sections have been divided into “red zones” and “green zones,” Lewis said. Roughly 500 of the medical staff members are bussed off the ship after their shift and are housed in an undisclosed hotel, where they can get clean, rest and eat before returning to the ship 12 hours later, Navy officials said. They are the only ones staying in the hotel, Lewis said. Those medical personnel have “significant contact” with patients and are not allowed to leave the hotel in their time off.

The ship is crewed by about 71 civilian mariners who maintain and operate the ship, all of whom are being separated from the medical sections of the vessel, officials said.

Doctors, nurses and other medical workers elsewhere in New York have fallen ill while treating coronavirus patients. Such risks will likely confront the crew of the Comfort as well, but Navy officials have already moved to isolate positive cases among the crew.

The crew member who tested positive on Monday has been isolated from patients and other crew members, a Navy spokeswoman said, and those who were in contact with the crew member “will remain in isolation for several days regardless of the test result, out of an abundance of caution.”

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