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Hospital Ships, Other DOD Assets Prepare for Coronavirus Response

March 18, 2020 | BY C. Todd Lopez

Two Navy hospital ships will be part of the Defense Department's response to the coronavirus pandemic, the Pentagon's chief spokesman said.

The USNS Comfort and USNS Mercy are being prepared for deployment "as needed to assist potentially overwhelmed communities with acute patient care," Jonathan Rath Hoffman, assistant to the defense secretary for public affairs, said during a news conference today at the Pentagon. He was joined at the briefing by Air Force Brig. Gen. (Dr.) Paul Friedrichs, the Joint Staff surgeon.

A civilian and an Air Force general brief reporters.
Pentagon Briefing
Jonathan Rath Hoffman, assistant to the defense secretary for public affairs, and Air Force Brig. Gen. (Dr.) Paul Friedrichs, Joint Staff surgeon, brief reporters on the Defense Department’s COVID-19 response at the Pentagon, March 18, 2020.
Photo By: Army Staff Sgt. Edwin Pierce, DOD
VIRIN: 200318-A-BY943-622Y

The Comfort is now in Norfolk, Virginia, for maintenance, and the Navy has been asked to expedite that, Hoffman said, adding that it may take "a little while" for that ship to be ready to go. It will go to New York when its maintenance is complete.

The Mercy is on the West Coast and is ready to go in "days, not weeks," he said, and where it will go will be determined when it's ready to sail.

Both ships face issues with manning, however. Friedrichs, said the ships would likely be manned with typical staffs of personnel trained for combat casualty care, rather than for dealing with a contagious disease like the coronavirus.  

"Our understanding is that the intent is the ships will be used to take non-coronavirus patients, which is what our staffs are best assigned and organized to do," he said.

A large white ship is tied to a dock. The ship has the words “U.S. Naval Hospital Ship Mercy” on the side, along with a large red cross.
USNS Mercy
The USNS Mercy moors to the pier at Naval Base San Diego, Calif., upon returning from Pacific Partnership 2018, July 21, 2018.
Photo By: Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Zach Kreitzer
VIRIN: 180721-N-PN275-1061

Defense Secretary Dr. Mark T. Esper suggested yesterday that one role for military medical professionals in regard to coronavirus response would be to take non-coronavirus patient care off of the hands of civilian hospital staffs so that those staffs could instead deal with coronavirus patients. Military medical personnel, and military medical facilities are geared more toward trauma care than dealing with contagious patients, he said.

The Defense Department has also put a number of active duty medical units on alert.  That includes different types of units, Friedrichs said. "Right now, what we are trying to do is make sure we have a range of options available to meet the requests that may come to us from [the Department of Health and Human Services] and from communities."

Altogether, Friedrichs said, enough units have been put on alert to provide 1,000 beds, a number that doesn't include those on the Navy's hospital ships.  

A large white ship is tied to a dock. The ship has the words “U.S. Naval Hospital Ship Comfort” on the side, along with a large red cross.
Comfort Return
The hospital ship USNS Comfort returns to Naval Station Norfolk after a five-month deployment, Nov. 15, 2019.
Photo By: Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Kris R. Lindstrom
VIRIN: 191115-N-GN619-012C

DOD has a variety of deployable medical units it could draw on to provide those 1,000 beds, Friedrichs said, including Air Force Expeditionary Medical System units that can be transported rapidly on aircraft; the Army's much larger Combat Support Hospitals, which can also be deployed by air or over the ground; Army field hospitals; and Navy Expeditionary Medical Facilities.

Hoffman also said that as of 5 a.m. today, 49 military personnel, 14 civilian employees, 19 military family members and seven contractors had confirmed cases of coronavirus.