Health and Science

Coronavirus patients spend night on Navy hospital ship meant for non-infected New York patients

Key Points
  • The Comfort is supposed to treat patients with conditions other than COVID-19 to free up space in overwhelmed New York hospitals.
  • The 1,000-bed hospital ship, which arrived in New York Monday, has treated 27 patients as of Saturday morning, according to a Navy spokesperson.
  • Hospital leaders in New York City have criticized the Comfort's deployment for not accepting COVID-19 patients and failing to provide tangible relief to strained hospitals. 
A military officer next to the USNS Comfort Navy hospital ship located at Pier 90 to care for patients not related to Covic-19 on March 31, 2020 in New York City.
Pablo Monsalve | Getty Images

Multiple coronavirus patients spent Friday night aboard the USNS Comfort after federal officials said the Navy hospital ship was only supposed to treat non-coronavirus patients.

The Navy said "less than five" patients were transferred to the ship Friday evening from the Jacob K. Javits Center in New York City. The patients were transferred back to the Javits Center "as soon as practical," a Navy spokesperson said.

The Javits Center has been converted into a temporary hospital to treat coronavirus patients amid the city's epidemic, while the Comfort is supposed to receive patients who don't have the virus to relieve stress on the city's hospitals. 

Hospital leaders in New York City, however, have criticized the Comfort's deployment as "a joke" for not accepting COVID-19 patients and failing to provide tangible relief to strained hospitals. The 1,000-bed hospital ship, which arrived in New York Monday, has treated 27 patients as of Saturday morning, according to a Navy spokesperson.

"If I'm blunt about it, it's a joke," Michael Dowling, the head of Northwell Health hospital system told The New York Times earlier in the week. "Everyone can say, 'Thank you for putting up these wonderful places and opening up these cavernous halls.' But we're in a crisis here, we're in a battlefield."

COVID-19 has infected more than 113,700 people across New York state and killed at least 3,565 people, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Saturday. More than half of all cases in the state are in New York City with at least 63,306 people testing positive, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. 

The patients transferred to the Comfort Friday had not previously been tested for COVID-19, Navy spokesperson Beth Baker said, and they remained "isolated" on the ship pending results of tests administered aboard the Comfort. It takes about 24 hours to receive the results of the tests, she added.

"While admitting patients who were transferred to USNS Comfort for treatment, a few patients tested positive for COVID-19," Baker said in a statement.

Fox News first reported the story.

Bureaucratic obstacles and military procedures have prevented the Comfort from accepting more patients, according to the New York Times. The Navy disseminated guidelines to New York hospitals that included a list of 49 medical conditions that would preclude a patient's admittance to the ship, the Times reported. 

"Since arrival, the hospital ship has worked closely with city and local health officials for non- COVID-19 patient referrals that arrive by ambulance from either local hospitals or the Javits Federal Medical Station," A Navy spokesperson said. "We will continue to coordinate hospital-to-hospital transfer of patients to USNS Comfort."

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The Pentagon announced Friday that it had expedited the screening process for people to receive care on the Comfort to more quickly relieve overwhelmed New York hospitals. As a result, the process no longer requires a patient to test negative for the coronavirus before boarding.

"What is different is that instead of requiring a negative COVID-19 test prior to arrival at USNS Comfort, we are now accepting asymptomatic, screened patients who will be isolated and tested immediately upon arrival," a Navy spokesperson said in a statement.

The screening process now consists of a pier-side temperature check and health questionnaire, Pentagon officials said Friday. The ship is docked at Pier 90 on Manhattan's west side.

The Comfort and its twin ship the Mercy, which was deployed to Los Angeles, were transformed from hulking oil tankers into 1,000-bed hospital ships. They are both nearly three football fields long and 10 stories high, making them indisputably the largest hospital ships in the world.

Both ships have side ports to take on patients at sea as well as helicopter decks for air transport. The ships are so massive, each would be tantamount to the fourth-biggest hospital in the United States.

The USNS Mercy and USNS Comfort are equipped with 12 operating rooms, a blood bank, a medical laboratory, a pharmacy, an optometry lab and a CT scanner. Each has 15 patient wards, 80 ICU beds and 10 elevators to transfer patients between decks.

-- CNBC's Amanda Macias contributed to this report