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Esper says US Navy hospital ships will takes weeks to deploy; will treat non-coronavirus ‘trauma patients’

The Military Sealift Command hospital ship USNS Mercy (T-AH 19), lead vessel for Pacific Partnership 2012, transits the Pacific Ocean toward Guam. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Michael Feddersen/Released)
March 19, 2020

After President Trump agreed to deploy U.S. Navy hospital ships to New York City and another western coastal city to expand hospital beds amid coronavirus, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said the ships won’t deploy immediately, and they won’t be treating coronavirus patients.

“The Comfort, which is on the East Coast, should be ready in a couple weeks — plus, the Mercy, which is on the West Coast, should be ready in a week and a half, two weeks, definitely before the end of this month the Mercy will deploy,” Esper told CNN’s Jake Tapper on Wednesday.

Comfort and Mercy are currently undergoing maintenance and working to fill any necessary medical staff vacancies to prepare for deployment. Each ship has a 1,000-bed capacity.

Esper explained that the Pentagon is preparing to set up field hospitals to states which will also assist in the treatment of patients not affected by coronavirus.

“Those field hospitals — those expeditionary hospitals — those provide the same functions as the hospital ships, we can field them fairly quickly, we can provide hospital beds and we can provide doctors, nurses, equipment all those things you need,” Esper told Tapper.

“Again they’re geared toward trauma, and what we can do is to create space in local hospitals by peeling off their trauma patients putting them through our field hospitals,” Esper said, adding “we could set it up in an open field and we can process patients through there whatever makes most sense, that’s most convenient for the governors, again those are conversations I’m having.”

Comfort and Mercy were designed with open bay treatment areas, which are not conducive for treating and containing highly contagious illnesses like coronavirus.

“The Comfort and Mercy will not deploy to treat COVID patients but will be made available to assist with treatment of other patients in coastal locations where local health professionals are necessarily focused on a large number of COVID cases,” a spokesperson for the Navy told CNN in a statement.

Comfort will be deploying to New York City, which currently has thousands of coronavirus cases.

New York currently has 53,000 hospital beds, though Gov. Andrew Cuomo said the state could need double that amount when the coronavirus reaches its peak in an estimated 45 days. The state also has just 3,000 intensive care beds, but could need over 37,000.

It’s not yet clear which western city the Mercy will deploy to.