Military Weighs Risks of Taking COVID-19 Patients Aboard Hospital Ships

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Ensign Patrick Coyle writes down patient information aboard the USNS Mercy.
Ensign Patrick Coyle, from Tampa, Florida, writes down patient information aboard the hospital ship USNS Mercy (T-AH 19) April 1, 2020. Mercy deployed in support of the nation's COVID-19 response efforts, and will serve as a referral hospital for non-COVID-19 patients currently admitted to shore-based hospitals. This allows shore base hospitals to focus their efforts on COVID-19 cases. (Ryan M. Breeden/U.S. Navy)

The Defense Department is conducting a risk assessment on the possibility of taking coronavirus patients aboard in the close quarters of the hospital ship Comfort in New York City, Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Friday.

"We're reassessing that now," Milley told Fox News of the current guidelines that limit access to the Comfort to non-COVID patients.

He said Defense Secretary Mark Esper was "making a risk assessment to determine whether or not we should take on all-COVID patients" in an effort to relieve the stress on overburdened city hospitals.

At a Pentagon news conference later Friday, Jonathan Hoffman, the department's chief spokesman, said the same risk assessment applied to the hospital ship Mercy, now in Los Angeles, but noted that neither ship was intended for the treatment of an infectious disease that could spread quickly below decks.

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"I will say we're very well aware of the risks of doing that," Hoffman said.

He added that a decision was "not imminent."

In the case of the Comfort, the access rules had already been loosened, Hoffman said. Previously, patients had to be checked first at a local hospital for coronavirus, but now they can be taken to the Comfort directly by ambulance, he said.

As of Friday, there was a total of about "a couple of dozen" non-COVID patients being treated aboard the Comfort and the Mercy, each a 1,000-bed ship, and it was unclear whether demand for use of the ships would pick up, Hoffman said.

He said the directives in New York City and Los Angeles to stay at home were having the effect of decreasing the need for hospital treatment of non-coronavirus cases.

Earlier Friday, the Defense Department announced that three makeshift military hospitals built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and U.S. Navy in New York City, New Orleans and Dallas would start treating patients with coronavirus.

The three facilities had previously been limited to non-coronavirus patients.

The new rules applied to the Javits Convention Center in Manhattan, the New Orleans Morial Convention Center and the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center in Dallas, the Defense Department said.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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