Two U.S. Navy hospital ships Donald Trump said are in “tip top shape” and would be deployed “in the next week or so” to assist the response to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic are actually undergoing maintenance and are not currently staffed with medical crews, NBC News reported on Wednesday.
According to Bloomberg, Defense Secretary Mark Esper told reporters that the USNS Mercy and Comfort lack the equipment to handle infectious diseases like the coronavirus, but could be used to free up more badly needed beds in hospitals. The Mercy will be potentially be available to sail from port at San Diego, California in a matter of days, but it’s not clear where it will head. The Comfrt is undergoing maintenance at its base in Norfolk, Virginia “and there are no medical personnel on board,” according to NBC. Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman told Bloomberg that the Comfort isn’t expected to launch for weeks despite an expedited maintenance schedule.
The fuzzy timeline for the ships’ launches is basically to be expected at this point after weeks of a fumbled federal response to the virus and continual misinformation from the White House. A massive shortage of test kits helped coronavirus spread to all 50 states, while reporting by the New York Times indicated that Trump has only this week started to activate much of the federal apparatus that is in place to respond to national emergencies.
The Navy says the Comfort and Mercy clock at 894 feet long and can support a crew of 71 civilian staff and up to 1,200 Navy medical and communications personnel. Each can hold 1,000 patients, which New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said is modest in comparison to possible needs but is still a badly needed addition to capacity during the crisis.
New York state currently has by far the most confirmed cases in the U.S. at nearly 2,400, according to the New York Times tracker, and that number is expected to expand dramatically in the coming weeks. Cuomo and NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio are reportedly at odds over whether to issue a shelter-in-place order across NYC, similar to one already in place in the Bay Area.
“Right now, in New York specifically, the rate of the curve suggests that in 45 days we could have up to an input of people who need 110,000 beds,” the governor told reporters. “That compares to our current capacity of 53,000 beds.”
“It’s an extraordinary step, obviously,” Cuomo added. “It is literally a floating hospital.”
“Both ships are currently working to complete scheduled maintenance cycles and identify necessary medical staffing to deploy as soon as possible,” a defense department official told NPR.
According to Politico, defense officials also confirmed on Tuesday that the Air Force was involved in flying 500,000 coronavirus test kits from Italy to the states. Air Force Chief of Staff General David Goldfein also said the Air Force is planning to provide air transport for more of the kits and may be involved in evacuating individuals with the virus in aircraft modified to safely contain patients with infectious diseases. Cuomo told reporters the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was scheduled to deploy to New York on Wednesday to assess where it could place mobile hospitals with a capacity of 200-250 people.