Such were the expectations for the Navy hospital ship U.S. Naval Ship Comfort that when it chugged into New York Harbor this week, throngs of people, momentarily forgetting the strictures of social distancing, crammed together along Manhattan’s west side to catch a glimpse.
On Thursday, though, the huge white vessel, which officials had promised would bring succor to a city on the brink, sat mostly empty, infuriating local hospital executives. The ship’s 1,000 beds are largely unused, its 1,200-member crew mostly idle.
Only 20 patients had been transferred to the ship, officials said, even as New York hospitals struggled to find space for the thousands infected with the coronavirus. Another Navy hospital ship, the U.S. Naval Ship Mercy, docked in Los Angeles, has had a total of 15 patients, officials said.
“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 Comfort was sent to New York to relieve pressure on city hospitals by treating people with ailments other than COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus.
President Donald Trump left a nine-day sequester in the White House last week to travel to Norfolk, Virginia, to personally see off the ship as it set sail for New York, saying it would play a “critical role.” The ship’s arrival Monday was cheered as one of the few bright moments in a grim time for the city.
But the reality has been different. A tangle of military protocols and bureaucratic hurdles has prevented the Comfort from accepting many patients at all.
On top of its strict rules preventing people infected with the virus from coming on board, the Navy is also refusing to treat a host of other conditions. Guidelines disseminated to hospitals included a list of 49 medical conditions that would exclude a patient from admittance to the ship. Read more