Will sending US military hospital ships to support coastal cities respond to the Wuhan Virus (COVID-19) pandemic help the effort, or make things worse? Last week the Pentagon announced the deployment of two large U.S. military hospital ships to support civilian efforts managing the crisis.
According to NPR, one of those ships — the USNS Comfort — is expected to take up a position in New York Harbor, adjacent to New York City. Meanwhile, the USNS Mercy, based on the West Coast is expected to deploy offshore near Los Angeles.
Neither ship will treat COVID-19 patients but instead will be made available to assist with the treatment of other patients where local health professionals are inundated with virus cases. This is supposed to allow the onshore hospitals to focus on the patients critically ill from the virus.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo was reported as saying in NPR that the ship’s presence will help take the pressure off facilities and staff in New York state, which is expecting to need more than 50,000 new hospital beds and more than 30,000 new intensive care units as the coronavirus spreads.
As described by BuzzFeed, these old ships were originally large San Clemente class oil tankers converted during the Cold War to provide medical service in the event of a “major conflict.” They are both 900 feet long. Their primary mission is medical trauma.
Each has 12 fully equipped operating rooms, plus radiology, various laboratories, CT scanners, and a pharmacy. “At ‘full-strength,’ each of these ships can have … up to 1,200 doctors, nurses, and other medical specialists.”
At first glance, the idea seems like a “no-brainer” great idea. However, Craig Hooper a national security contributor to Forbes argues that “Using Navy Hospital Ships To Help With Coronavirus Is A Dangerously Bad Idea.”
With no rapid testing, screening mechanisms or antivirals available, employing these ships as alternate hospitals is madness. While the old ships… are excellent trauma centers, they lack strong capabilities to handle infectious disease. If a single infectious person enters these ships, the vessels could easily become disease incubators, weighing down an already over-burdened medical system.
The idea of providing backup emergency room support or trauma support is noble, but there are little means to distinguish between the infected or non-infected in even healthy patients…Medical personnel and potentially contaminated supplies will be moving from shore to ship and back, exposing the vessel to infection risk as well.
Hooper explains specifically that:
Infection is a particularly serious issue for both the USNS Mercy and Comfort. The two ships run on old steam boilers—a propulsion method so old that…many of America’s boiler technicians are old enough to be at real risk of dying from coronavirus infection.
Ultimately, the ships are a problematic choice for a war against a communicable disease. Rather than serving… to relieve the burden on stressed hospitals, these enormous ships risk becoming viral incubators—just as prior cruise ship outbreaks have demonstrated.
However, Hooper concludes:
In time, the hospital ships might still be useful. If a rapid test or anti-viral for COVID-19 becomes available, the hospital ships would be at far less of a risk of becoming an unintended hotbed of viral infection.
Other steps may help. Given that the USNS Comfort is still in…a maintenance period, enterprising naval architects could try to improve the ability of the ship to handle infectious patients by jury-rigging ventilation and other infection fighting measures. The ship is old and ready to be retired, so last-second modifications could be completed with the idea that domestic coronavirus response will be the vessel’s terminal mission.
So, it appears these old hospital ships may still prove useful in this current crisis, but only if upgraded to handle a highly infectious disease such as the Wuhan Virus. Let’s see how this issue develops.
Paul Crespo is a defense and national security expert. He served as a Marine Corps officer and as a military attaché with the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) at US embassies worldwide. He holds degrees from Georgetown, London, and Cambridge Universities. Paul is also CEO of SPECTRE Global Risk, a security advisory firm, and a Contributor to American Defense News.