• Each ship has 1,000 beds and a dozen operating rooms but coronavirus patients are excluded
  • More than 57,000 New Yorkers have tested positive for the virus and at least 1,562 have died
  • The Comfort docked on Monday but did not accept any patients until Thursday

The USNS Comfort hospital ship, which arrived in New York City this week to take on non-coronavirus patients, reportedly was mostly empty despite the overwhelming number of COVID-19 patients being treated at the city’s hospitals. President Trump had promised the ship would play a critical role in dealing with the pandemic, which already has killed more than 1,500 New Yorkers.

The New York Times reported only 20 patients on Thursday were aboard the ship, which docked on Monday, largely because of military protocols and bureaucratic hurdles. The first three patients were admitted Thursday.

More than 57,000 people have tested positive for the virus in New York City, with at least 1,562 deaths. Statewide, there have been some 100,000 positive tests and the death toll is nearing 3,000.

“If I’m blunt about it, it’s a joke,” Michael Dowling, the head of Northwell Health, New York’s largest hospital system, told the Times. “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.”

Capt. Patrick Amersbach said he expects to see the numbers aboard the Comfort to increase significantly.

Dowling said retrofitting his facilities, including lobbies and conference rooms, has opened up 2,800 beds for COVID-19 patients, about 25% of whom need intensive care.

In addition to refusing to treat coronavirus cases, the Navy lists 49 other medical conditions barred from admittance. In addition, patients must be transported to another hospital first for evaluation before they can be moved to the 1,000-bed ship.

“We’re bringing them on as fast as we can bring them on,” Elizabeth Baker, a spokeswoman for the Navy, told the Times.

The Times said COVID-19 patients have been dying in hallways for want of hospital beds and ventilators while doctors and nurses have become infected, possibly because, in part, they are forced to reuse personal protective gear due to shortages.

Dowling said if the Navy continues refusing to take coronavirus patients, there will be few patients to send considering the dropoff in shootings and car accidents since the population is largely cooperating with stay-at-home orders.

“It’s pretty ridiculous. If you’re not going to help us with the people we need help with, what’s the purpose?” Dowling asked.

The Defense Department said the USNS Mercy, which is docked in Los Angeles and also has 1,000 beds, has so far admitted 15 patients. Capt. John R. Rotruck said the Mercy is equipped to help patients suffering from traumatic accidents as well as those suffering from gastrointestinal, heart and lung problems.

"Although we have never responded to a pandemic, this is the type of mission that we train for, as our ship is uniquely outfitted for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief," he said.

The US navy hospital ship Comfort arrived in New York to boost overwhelmed medical facilities
The US navy hospital ship Comfort arrived in New York to boost overwhelmed medical facilities AFP / Bryan R. Smith