The Navy is gearing up to send its hospital ships to areas hit hard by the quickly escalating novel coronavirus crisis, but the one heading to New York likely won't be ready to operate there for weeks, defense officials said.
President Donald Trump said Wednesday that the Navy's pair of hospital ships will soon be stationed on the East and West coasts to help relieve stress on American medical facilities. Doctors and experts have warned that U.S. hospitals could soon be overwhelmed by a sudden increase in coronavirus cases.
Positive coronavirus cases in the U.S. have soared to more than 7,000. More than 110 Americans have died from the virus, named COVID-19, which can cause respiratory distress and attack organs.
The Virginia-based Comfort will head to New York, which has more than 2,300 coronavirus cases. The San Diego-based Mercy will be sent to a yet-to-be-determined location along the West Coast. Trump said the hospital ships Mercy and Comfort are being prepared now and will be launched in the next week or so.
But the Comfort is currently undergoing maintenance in Norfolk, Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said. Leaders are working to expedite the work, but it's likely to take weeks -- not days -- to complete, he said.
"It's going to be a little while," Hoffman said.
The Mercy, he added, will likely be ready to deploy somewhere along the West Coast within days. Once it's ready, they'll determine where to send it.
Each ship has a dozen fully equipped operating rooms, can house 1,000 hospital beds, and has labs, pharmacies and oxygen-producing plants.
"They're massive ships, the big white ships with the red cross on the sides," Trump said during Wednesday's coronavirus update. "... They are in tiptop shape; they soon will be."
The military is assessing staffing levels for each ship, Air Force Brig. Gen. Paul Friedrichs, the Joint Staff surgeon, told reporters. The Pentagon is working with local leaders to assess their needs so the ships are staffed appropriately, he added.
"Our understanding is that the intent is the ships will be used to take non-coronavirus patients, which is what our staff are best assigned and organized to do," the general said. "If that's the case, then we'll adjust the numbers and the mix of staff based on what we learn from the local leadership."
The crews are likely to include active-duty personnel, Hoffman added, since they can be mobilized and deployed quickest.