Officials ‘underestimated’ issues facing USNS Comfort to fight pandemic, experts say

Deploying a floating naval hospital to New York City sent a powerful message of support amid the coronavirus crisis — but officials may have “underestimated the difficulties” the ship would face battling a pandemic, some experts said Tuesday.

Amid developments that include the accidental admission of infected patients and a crew member testing positive for the disease, Stephen Morrison of the Center for Strategic and International Studies said the USNS Comfort is facing more difficulty than anticipated.

“The original assumption that they could control access onto the ship of patients who were free of COVID-19 was very unrealistic,” said Morrison, director of the Washington, DC-based think tank’s Global Health Policy Center.

“The ship is fitted out for battlefield injuries — it was not designed for dealing with a highly infectious and highly transmissible outbreak.”

Morrison said it was “inevitable” that the US military would be activated to help respond to the pandemic, as Gov. Andrew Cuomo publicly requested of President Trump last month, and said that the Comfort, which is docked at Pier 90 on Manhattan’s West Side, “has a highly symbolic importance to people.”

“Every chief of naval operations that I’ve talked to over the years has been very positive about the utility” of the Comfort and the Mercy, its sister ship deployed to Los Angeles, he said.

“They have great public morale benefits.”

Morrison, who studied both ships for a 2013 research paper he co-authored, also called Monday’s decision by President Trump to allow the Comfort to start treating coronavirus patients “a positive step.”

“In order to be responsive to needs, they need to take on that risk and take on the task of managing the virus on that ship,” he said.

“I think they’re learning as they move ahead and they’re adjusting their protocols for what they can and cannot do — and I think that means they’ll make a more meaningful contribution.”

Naval War College Professor James Holmes, who said his views didn’t represent those of the Navy or the US government, echoed the symbolic importance of the Comfort, saying, “Hospital ships reassure New Yorkers, in particular, that they are not alone in this.”

“They provide, well, comfort; and comfort and hope are as important in this time of trial as the medical services the crew renders,” he said.

But Holmes, an expert in maritime strategy, questioned whether the Comfort and the Mercy were the “best implements for the job,” noting, “There are alternatives.”

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