The underused hospital ship USNS Comfort, sent urgently to New York City last month to help local hospitals battle the novel coronavirus pandemic, will return to Norfolk, Virginia, possibly as early as next week to prepare for another COVID-19 mission if necessary, the Pentagon said Friday.
The Comfort's sister ship, the USNS Mercy, sent from San Diego to Los Angeles last month on a similar mission, will also likely be withdrawn soon, but there have not yet been approvals from California Gov. Gavin Newsom or Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, said Jonathan Hoffman, the Pentagon's chief spokesman, at a briefing.
Upon its return to homeport in Norfolk, possibly in the next week or two, the Comfort will undergo maintenance and be restocked "to prepare it for another mission, but that will be FEMA's call," Hoffman said, referring to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
The Comfort arrived at Pier 90 on Manhattan's West Side on March 30 in what was then seen as a crucial step in efforts to help the city, the U.S. epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak with more than 16,640 deaths recorded as of Friday, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center.
To underline the importance of the Comfort's mission, President Donald Trump made a rare departure from the White House to attend the ship's sendoff from Norfolk.
However, as of Tuesday, the ship -- with 1,000 beds, 12 operating rooms and a medical staff of about 1,000 -- had treated a total of only 179 patients, with 56 on board that day.
The limited use could be partly explained by the shifting missions assigned to the Comfort. The ship had been intended to treat only non-coronavirus patients, but officials then decided that there was little need to cope with an excess of non-COVID-19 patients in a city in lockdown.
The ship was converted to treat only COVID patients, but that need also wasn't there with the conversion of the nearby Javits Convention Center into a 1,500-bed all-COVID facility.
Last week, the military decided that the best use for the Comfort's doctors, nurses and medical aides was to send them directly into city hospitals, rather than wait for patients to come to them.
On Tuesday, at one of his daily White House news briefings, Trump said he had asked New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio whether the Comfort could be withdrawn and they agreed.
"I asked Andrew if we could bring Comfort back to its base in Virginia, so we could have it for other locations, and he said we would be able to do that," Trump said.
At his own daily briefing Friday in New York, Cuomo said hospitalizations are down and pressure on local hospitals appears to be easing, but also noted the "heartbreaking" figure of another 422 deaths recorded in the past 24 hours.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.