The relief effort of the U.S.N.S. Comfort, a hospital ship deployed to receive patients with conditions other than COVID-19 to create more beds at New York City hospitals for virus patients, has come under criticism following delays in admitting patients.
The ship, equipped with 1,000 hospital beds and 1,200 medical workers, has reportedly only taken 20 patients aboard since it began operations on April 1, with hundreds of beds on the ship remaining unused.
But various military protocols and other red tape, including nearly 49 medical conditions other than the COVID-19 virus that disqualify a patient from being admitted onto the ship (such as those in need of obstetric or pediatric care), have reportedly caused major roadblocks in providing the relief the city's hospitals need, The New York Times reported.
"The process continues and we are honestly looking forward to seeing a significant increase in patients being transferred to the Comfort," Capt. Patrick Amersbach, of the U.S.N.S. Comfort, told reporters on Thursday.
The U.S.N.S. Mercy, which docked in Los Angeles with the mission last Friday and is equipped with 800 medical staff, has treated a total of 15 patients, five of whom have been discharged, the ship's commanding officer Capt. John Rotruck said.
A spokeswoman for the U.S. Navy, Elizabeth Baker, said "We're bringing [patients] on as fast as we can bring them on."
Neither ship accepts walk-in patients. All patients must be evaluated at local hospitals first and be tested for the virus before being allowed to board the ships, which adds to the delay in the process of getting patients aboard the ships.
Michael Dowling, the president and chief executive officer of Northwell Health, New York's largest hospital system, told the Times, "If I'm blunt about it, it's a joke. 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."
Various hospitals have been refitted to create more space for virus patients, making use of lobby space and conference rooms, Dowling explained. His facilities are hosting around 2,800 infected patients, up from 100 on March 20. Nearly 25 percent have serious conditions and are in intensive care units.
With New York placed under lockdown, there are less patients suffering from car accidents and gunshot wounds or other accidents requiring emergency care. Therefore, there are fewer non-virus patients to send to the U.S.N.S. Comfort, as the city copes with thousands of people infected with the virus, Dowling said.
"It's pretty ridiculous," he said. "If you're not going to help us with the people we need help with, what's the purpose?"
The commanding officers of both ships have said they would accept COVD-19 virus patients if they were ordered to do so.
"If that demand signal ramps up, we'll certainly be ready to accommodate that," Capt. Rotruck told reporters Thursday.
Both Capt. Rotruck and Capt. Amersbach have said the ships would need to be reconfigured if COVID-19 virus patients were to be admitted.
Various large public venues in New York City have been converted into hospital spaces since the outbreak to help hospitals cope with the growing number of infected patients, including in Central Park where a field hospital was erected.
Other recent builds include a makeshift hospital at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Queens, the home of the U.S. Open, and at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center, which has nearly 3,000 beds.
Newsweek has contacted the U.S. Navy for further comment on the latest situation.
The virus, which was first reported in Wuhan, China, has affected over a million people across 181 countries and regions, including more than 245,500 in the U.S., the epicenter of the outbreak. While over 212,000 have recovered from infection but more than 53,100 have died globally.
New York is the worst-hit state in the U.S., with over 92,300 confirmed cases, including more than 51,800 patients in New York City, according to figures released Thursday from the office of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo.
The graphic below, provided by Statista, illustrates the spread of COVID-19 across the U.S.
Data on COVID-19 cases is from Johns Hopkins University unless otherwise stated.
Mask and glove usage