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Navy readying hospital ships for coronavirus response

Written by Nick Blenkey
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The Military Sealift Command hospital ship USNS Comfort (T-AH 20) pulls into Naval Station Norfolk, Nov. 15, 2019 following completion of a five month humanitarian deployment to South America, Central America and the Carribean. (U.S. Navy photo by Bill Mesta)

The U.S. Navy is preparing to deploy its two hospital ships — USNS Comfort and USNS Mercy —in response to the coronavirus outbreak. However, in a press briefing at the Pentagon yesterday, Secretary of Defense Mark T. Esper indicated that they would not be used to treat coronavirus patients directly, but to alleviate the pressure on shoreside facilities.

Here’s what the Secretary said:

“With regard to the hospital ships, there are two, as you know. The — the Comfort is on the East Coast; the Mercy, on West Coast in Norfolk and — and San Diego, respectively. The Comfort is undergoing maintenance and the Mercy is — is — is at port. We’ve already given orders to the Navy a few days ago to lean forward, in terms of getting them ready to deploy. They provide capabilities, but much like what DOD does provide, our capabilities are focused on trauma. And so whether it’s our field hospitals, whether it’s our — our — our hospital ships, they are focused on trauma. They don’t have necessarily the — the space, the segregated spaces you need to deal with infectious diseases. And so one of the ways by which you could use either field hospitals, the — the hospital ships or things in between is to take the pressure off of civilian hospitals when it comes to trauma cases, is to open up civilian hospital rooms for infectious diseases.

“Now for us, the — the big challenge, though, isn’t necessarily the availability of these inventories; it’s the medical professionals. All those doctors and nurses either come from our medical treatment facilities or they come from the — the Reserves, which means civilians. And so we’ve got — what 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. So I don’t — what I don’t want to do is take Reservists from a hospital where they are needed just to put them on a ship to take them somewhere else where they are needed. So we’ve got to be very conscious of that. And — and as I’ve spoken to a couple governors today, we — we talked a little bit about that, and I think people are beginning understand what that — what that trade-off means.”

Today, New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo tweeted that one of the ships, USNS Comfort, would be positioned in New York Harbor.

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