U.S. Navy via Wikimedia Commons

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.”

His argument?

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.


Paul Crespo is the Managing Editor of American Defense News. 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. Paul holds degrees from Georgetown, London, and Cambridge Universities. He is also CEO of SPECTRE Global Risk, a security advisory firm, and President of the Center for American Defense Studies, a national security think tank.

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Floyd Hardee
1 year ago

When will the Democrats put America first? Millions lose jobs and are desperate while they play games.

Teriqua Jones
Teriqua Jones
1 year ago
Reply to  Floyd Hardee

I don’t think our current democrats will ever put America first. Their only interest is destroying out country.

1 year ago
Reply to  Teriqua Jones

Or controlling it like all commie countries do where the minions are nothing but serfs to the lords of the manor which is as you say just another means of destruction. The minions will be as Chnia’s….expendable.

1 year ago
Reply to  Floyd Hardee

Pelosi at her best trying to sneak bills in the virus bill, holding Republican up from getting job done. Citizens first something that Pelosi has never done or we wouldn’t have illegals on Welfare, working for cash and voting. Because of her my truck insurance is higher, Uninsured motorist.
My neighbor was hit from behind and pushed into another car and passenger side hit. The truck that hit her was a Mexican construction and no insurance, driver illegal and no drivers license. The truck she was pushed into didn’t have current tags and no insurance. The car that hit passenger side. 25,000 insurance. She survived with a fractured wrist and black from seat belt. We need to make people responsible. Under Obama’s and Clinton’s the illegals got away with no responsibility. They don’t put them in jail for drugs; theft or anything.
Trump 2020
Thank God every day for what He is doing.
Wake up call that our country can’t depend on foreign countries for our drugs are medical supplies. No more of our jobs going to China. Or a foreign country that we have a trade balance.
We need to clean up our country first and make our country safer.

1 year ago
Reply to  Nellie

Agree totally.

Terry Wilson
1 year ago

Over kill

1 year ago

I think this should help.Right now we should try everything we can.

1 year ago
Reply to  Nancy

Yep…..can’t hurt.