The Navy’s twin hospital ships have treated fewer than 20 patients as coronavirus battle rages

A military officer next to the USNS Comfort Navy hospital ship located at Pier 90 to care for patients not related to Covic-19 on March 31, 2020 in New York City.

Pablo Monsalve | Getty Images

WASHINGTON — The captains of the U.S. Navy’s two hospital ships said Thursday that the vessels have treated fewer than 20 patients since deploying to New York and Los Angeles in an effort to alleviate the pressure on local hospitals.

The USNS Mercy, the first of the twin hospital ships to deploy, arrived in Los Angeles last week and has since treated 15 patients. 

“We’re here in support of FEMA in the state of California so we’re ready to answer whatever the demand signal is. And if that demand signal ramps up, we’ll certainly be ready to accommodate that,” U.S. Navy Capt. John Rotruck, the commanding officer of the USNS Mercy, told Pentagon reporters via telephone.

Rotruck added that Mercy’s crew has yet to perform any surgeries onboard but has already treated a variety of injuries. 

“People who have been in traumatic accidents who are now recovering, people with gastrointestinal and heart and lung problems. So pretty much the gamut of patients that you’d expect to see in a community hospital,” he said.

Hospitalman Jeremiah Lewis, from San Antonio, organizes medical supplies aboard the Military Sealift Command hospital ship USNS Mercy off the coast of southern California March 24, 2020.

Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Ryan Breeden | US Navy

The Comfort, which arrived in New York City on Monday from its home port in Norfolk, Virginia, received its first patient on Wednesday. Thus far, the Comfort has treated a total of three patients.

The latest revelation came Thursday as New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, whose state is at the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak, reported a total of 92,381 coronavirus cases so far.

When asked why the vessels hadn’t received more referrals given the capacity of each ship, U.S. Navy Capt. Patrick Amersbach, the commanding officer of the USNS Comfort, said he could not speculate if there was a delay and what the reason might be. 

“The process continues and we are honestly looking forward to seeing a significant increase in patients being transferred to the Comfort,” he said, adding that each patient must be referred to the vessel by a local hospital.

The twin vessels, currently tasked to receive non-coronavirus patients, may deploy to other coastal cities, such as New Orleans, as coronavirus cases around the nation rise.

“We’re in a constant state of readiness to do whatever mission that our higher officials ask of us. So, the issue of us when relocating would just be providing a safe disposition for all the patients that are currently on board the ship. And once we accomplish that we could leave in fairly short order,” Rotruck said, adding that the movement would be at the direction of FEMA.

The military’s floating lifesavers

The hospital ship USNS Mercy navigates alongside the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln after arriving on station near Banda Aceh, Sumamtra, Indonesia, February 3, 2005.

Gabriel R. Piper | Reuters | US Navy

The vessels, which were transformed from hulking oil tankers into 1,000-bed hospital ships, are nearly three football fields long and 10 stories high, making them indisputably the largest hospital ships in the world.

Both ships have side ports to take on patients at sea as well as helicopter decks for air transport. The ships are so massive, each would be tantamount to the fourth-biggest hospital in the United States.

The USNS Mercy and USNS Comfort are equipped with 12 operating rooms, a blood bank, a medical laboratory, a pharmacy, an optometry lab and a CT scanner.

 Each has 15 patient wards, 80 ICU beds and 10 elevators to transfer patients between decks. 

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