But in sending a Navy hospital ship to join the battle against a pandemic, military officials have taken a huge and calculated risk: Can a ship, the type of vessel where viruses have been shown to spread with frightening ease, actually remain safe from the infection raging just outside its berth at Pier 90 at Manhattan Cruise Terminal?
Navy officials do not plan to treat people with coronavirus aboard the Comfort. The mission is to take patients with other medical problems to relieve New York hospitals overrun by virus patients. But it is not as if the ship’s medical personnel can quarantine patients for two weeks before they accept them on board for treatment.
Navy officials, aware that all it would take is one positive case to turn the Comfort from rescue ship to floating petri dish, insist that they are doing everything short of Saran-wrapping the ship to try to keep it virus-free.
“We will establish a bubble around this ship to make sure we’re doing everything to keep it out,” Capt. Joseph O’Brien, commodore of Task Force New York City, said in an interview from the Comfort on Sunday.
That has meant almost sequestering the ship’s crew of 1,200 for the past two weeks to lessen their chances of contracting the virus, he said. The ship closed its workout rooms days ago, and the crew members have been practicing social distancing — at least, as much as they can in the confined quarters of a ship. Because the crew is composed of medically trained personnel, the learning curve on wiping down and disinfecting constantly is not as high as it might be.
But there remain challenges. Take President Trump’s visit on Saturday.
The president showed up to send off the Comfort in a show of national unity in a crisis. Normally, he and an entourage of staff members, reporters, handlers and photographers would have boarded the ship, and puffed up a few of those narrow staircases to see the bridge and tour an operating room. But not this time.
Neither Mr. Trump nor Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper, accompanying him, went aboard, and the president spoke from a lectern at the pier, with the ship behind him, then waved as it went out to sea. The fear of contaminating the hospital ship outweighed the benefits of a photo op.
“Bringing people onto a ship is inherently risky,” Capt. Patrick Amersbach, commanding officer of the medical personnel aboard the Comfort, said in a telephone interview from the ship. “So we have to be overly cautious.”
But within the striking white and red hull of the Comfort, some of the crew members say they are scared that they are tempting fate by dropping anchor in New York harbor. As of a week ago, the crew had not been informed of the screening procedures for patients coming aboard, other than temperature checks, according to one person aboard the Comfort familiar with the situation.
He added that there was some talk of conducting X-ray examinations — in an effort to check the lungs for evidence of the virus — but it is unclear if those are proceeding.
Navy officials acknowledge that it will be extremely difficult, yet paramount, to ensure no one with coronavirus gets on board. The ship’s crew will not be allowed off the ship; there will be no visits into Manhattan and of course no trips to bars or restaurants for takeout. Ship personnel will be doing temperature checks and scans and are still working on additional ways to screen patients before they are allowed on board, officials said.
With 12 operating rooms, 1,000 hospital beds, radiology services, a laboratory, pharmacy and CT scanner, the Comfort is its own fully-staffed hospital. It responded to the earthquake in Haiti in 2010, and showed up off the coast of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005. It has even been to New York before, when, in the days after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the Comfort provided aid and medical help largely for emergency medical workers.
It floated in the Arabian Sea during the Iraq war in 2003, receiving and treating injured Marines and soldiers. Treating combat wounds is its main function. The ship, a refurbished oil tanker that was commissioned in 1987, has never before been involved in a response to an infectious disease pandemic, Captain Amersbach said.
But other military hospitals have seen their own share of sudden mysterious infectious diseases.
Lt. Gen. Ron Place, director of the Defense Health Agency, recalled that during the early stages of the Iraq war, from 2003 to 2005, Army medics suddenly started seeing pneumonia cases in “otherwise young, healthy, what-should-be low-risk service members.” Alarmed, the military started digging and realized that there was a new kind of bacteria in Iraq that American troops were not used to, and the exposure had led to complications.
“It was scary times for them, scary times for their families,” General Place said, before military medical officials finally came up with an antibiotic program that worked.
A command center at the Javits Center in Manhattan will dispatch non-coronavirus patients to the Comfort, officials said. There, the patients will be treated in the ship’s massive wards, where beds, some of them bunk beds, are placed together.
“Infection control will remain a formidable challenge,” said J. Stephen Morrison, director of the Global Health Policy Center at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a policy research center in Washington.
But, he added, “the risks naval personnel are taking are certainly no higher than the risks faced by civilian medical personnel in NYC hospitals.”
Captain O’Brien, the Comfort commodore, said the deployment to New York feels different from other missions. “I’m from the Jersey Shore, so New York is a special place for me,” he said. “When it’s your own country, it’s a different thing completely.”