Report: 1,000-Bed USNS Comfort Treating 20 Patients

WCBS 880 Newsroom
April 03, 2020 - 6:13 pm

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NEW YORK (WCBS 880) — The news about the USNS Comfort is not that comforting.  

Earlier this week, crowds gathered near Pier 90 to cheer the arrival of the hospital ship, which has 1,000 beds and 1,200 staff. The Comfort's mission is to treat non-coronavirus patients with the intention of relieving pressure off the city's hospitals, which are treating thousands of COVID-19 patients and struggling to find more space as cases rise by staggering amounts every day.

But according to a report in the New York Times, as of Thursday, only 20 patients were being treated on board the Comfort.

With the number of virus cases skyrocketing in the city, the White House has revered course and approved the military-run hospital facility at the Javits Center for coronavirus patients. But that is not the case on the USNS Comfort, which has strict restrictions against accepting anyone with the virus. 

The Times cites military protocols and bureaucratic hurdles, including a list of 49 ailments that disqualify patients from admittance, that have so far prevented the Comfort from taking in more patients. 

Michael Dowling, the head of the Northwell Health Hospital System who has been charged with increasing hospital capacity in New York, told the Times, “If I’m blunt about it, it’s a joke.” 

Dowling in an interview with WCBS 880 said he understands the reasons why the Navy would no accept COVID-positive patients on the ship, but believes they need to loosen the admission criteria.

"The key is, and this is not trying to be overly critical, I respect what they're doing and I appreciate their help, but I don't have any non-sick people in my hospitals anymore, everybodyIi have in the hospitals right now has varying degrees of serious illness," Dowling said. "So the admission criteria have to be loosened, I expect that they will, I hope that they will so that we can relieve the pressure from the hospitals that are now overloaded which is pretty much every hospital in the region at the momen."

"I appreciate that they're here, I appreciate the Navy's cooperation but I do hope that there can be better utility by increasing their admission criteria," he added.

On Friday, the Department of Defense announced it would modify its screening for care on the USNS Comfort, saying it will now occur pier-side in an effort to reduce the backlog at some of the nearby New York hospitals.  

"The screening effort for the USNS Comfort will no longer require a negative test, but each patient will still be screened by temperature and a short questionnaire," the DOD said in a statement. "This assistance will further unburden the local hospital and ambulance systems in these areas, allowing them to focus on the more serious COVID-19 cases. We will immediately implement this action and work with local officials in each area on the details of patient arrival."

Prior to the change, ambulances were required to take patients to be tested for the virus at a city hospital before being transported to the ship.

At his daily coronavirus briefing, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said he plans to speak with the Secretary of Defense about the Comfort.

The governor said it was known from day one that the Comfort would not accept coronavirus-positive patients over disinfecting concerns.

"The Navy's position is they don't want COVID patients because it would be too hard to disinfect," Cuomo said. "We only have COVID and non-COVID  patients, the need is for COVID patients. They're not taking COVID-positive patients... I don't know the science of ship disinfecting to know whether or not they're being overly dramatic. I will take their word for it."

Asked about the Comfort on Friday morning during an appearance on CNN, Mayor Bill de Blasio said he expects the Comfort to fill up soon.

"I don't have a doubt in my mind, the Comfort is going to be filled up soon, the Javits Center is going to be filled up soon, that's the easy part, the hard part is our hospitals dealing with a massive surge in the coming days or not just COVID cases but folks who need ICU care," de Blasio said.

On Thursday, the number of cases in New York City was nearly 52,000 and the number of deaths statewide climbed towards 2,400.

On Tuesday, de Blasio called this Sunday "a demarcation line," when he expects a crest in the wave in the number of coronavirus cases and Gov. Andrew Cuomo has warned that the state's ventilator stockpile could be exhausted within days.

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