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USNS Comfort lived up to its name in NYC deployment, despite few COVID-19 cases

The USNS Comfort, which arrived in the early,

The USNS Comfort, which arrived in the early, dark days of the COVID-19 pandemic, will leave Thursday after spending a month in New York Harbor. Credit: James Carbone

When the USNS Comfort eased into New York Harbor on March 30, a city brought to its knees by the coronavirus pandemic embraced the white hospital ship with towering red crosses as a savior.

Mayor Bill de Blasio became emotional during a ceremony welcoming the 1,000-bed Navy ship to New York City, calling it a “beacon of hope.” The Comfort, de Blasio said, showed that the rest of the nation had not abandoned New York even as deaths skyrocketed and overwhelmed hospitals were running out of ventilators and other equipment.

But as the Comfort and its 1,200-member crew prepares to leave Manhattan Thursday and return to its berth in Norfolk, Virginia, the ship's contributions during the coronavirus pandemic seem largely symbolic. The ship treated 182 patients during the month it was docked at Pier 90 — in a city with more than 164,000 coronavirus cases and 11,000 deaths.

Navy protocols initially limited admissions to the Comfort to just a fraction of capacity, experts said, and then the need for the ship’s beds never materialized.

“While the sheer size of the Comfort raised expectations of how many patients would be treated on the ship, it was an available resource that would have served as an important safety net for hospitals if the patient surge got worse,” said Michael Dowling, CEO of Northwell Health. “Fortunately, it did not.”

Naval War College professor James R. Holmes said it would be unfair to dismiss the deployment as hype.

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“Knowing that extra surge capacity was on the scene must have alleviated worries among New Yorkers that hospital capacity would be overrun, and that they might be left without care, at a time when the trend lines indicated the worst might happen,” said Holmes, adding that his opinions did not reflect those of the Navy or the federal government.

Cmdr. Ashley Hockycko, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Second Fleet, said the Comfort was ready to receive patients when it arrived. Hospital officials and physicians decided who would be sent to the Comfort, she said, not the Navy.

The Comfort was initially supposed to provide care to patients not infected with coronavirus. Officials said the ship could accept 750 patients after it docked off Manhattan, but only 20 were admitted in the days that followed. Guidelines issued to hospitals placed restrictions on the types of patients who could be admitted to the Comfort. Ambulances had to take patients to a city hospital for a COVID-19 test and an evaluation before then transferring them to the ship.

Holmes said the Navy’s caution was rooted in the outbreak on the USS Theodore Roosevelt. About 4,000 members of the aircraft carrier’s 4,800-member crew had to be quarantined, sidelining about a third of the nation’s naval air power. The carrier's commander sent an email to Navy brass on the same day the Comfort arrived in New York Harbor pleading for help as coronavirus spread among the Roosevelt's crew.

“It colored how the Navy, the Pentagon and the administration did everything,” Holmes said. “I wouldn't be surprised if we bent over backward trying to safeguard the ships, their crews, and the medical staffs. If so, procedures may have been excessively stringent from a strictly public-health standpoint.”

The Trump administration — under pressure from Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and hospital officials angry that the Comfort was nearly empty while their facilities were overstressed — agreed a week after it docked to allow coronavirus patients to be treated on the ship.

Mark Cancian, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said he was skeptical because it is difficult to transfer patients from one health care system to another even in the best of times, never mind in the midst of a pandemic. Medical ships, he said, are designed to treat wartime injuries, not infectious diseases.

“It is hard to isolate a patient on a ship like the Comfort,” he said.

Five crew members eventually tested positive for the virus, Hockycko said. All have recovered.

The resources the Comfort brought to New York were not needed, the experts said, because shelter-in-place restrictions helped flatten the rate of transmission. The Comfort may not have brought much help, Holmes said, but it did bring hope.

“Hope,” he added, “is not a small thing in times of despair.”

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