A Navy ship is headed to New York to help hospitals strained by coronavirus patients

President Donald Trump sent a Navy hospital ship — the USNS Comfort — to New York City Saturday afternoon, in order to help hospitals overburdened by coronavirus patients.

Speaking at Virginia’s Naval Station Norfolk, Trump said the ship will arrive in New York City on Monday. The hospital ship was “rushed through” scheduled maintenance in four days, according to Trump, and will augment health care efforts in New York, where more than 23,000 Covid-19 cases have been confirmed and at least 517 people have died, as of March 28.

During his remarks, Trump also suggested that the severity of New York’s Covid-19 outbreak could lead him to place the state — along with its neighbors New Jersey and Connecticut — under quarantine, something that, as Vox’s Ian Millhiser has explained, is within the federal government’s power.

The president did not definitively say whether he would take this step, only stating that he plans to make an announcement about the potential quarantine “one way or the other fairly soon.” Trump also did not give details about what a quarantine for those states would look like, but said quarantine measures would not apply to people passing through those states. As of March 28, the state of New York has more than 52,000 confirmed coronavirus cases; New Jersey has about 8,800, and Connecticut has about 1,300 cases.

New York state has the largest proportion — almost 50 percent — of confirmed coronavirus cases in the country, and at least 728 people have died of Covid-19-related causes as of March 28. More than 500 of those deaths have been within New York City.

This high confirmed case count is why the Comfort is so badly needed in New York — as Caroline Hopkins has reported for Vox, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has said he believes the state will continue to see increases in confirmed cases for the next three weeks. And hospitals in the state are already overwhelmed: A resident at Columbia/New York-Presbyterian Hospital said her hospital’s intensive care unit (ICU) was at capacity due to coronavirus patients as of March 25, and a number of hospitals, Hopkins wrote, have begun to create plans governing which Covid-19 patients will receive care and which will not.

The Comfort’s role will be to provide emergency care for those with non-Covid-19-related illnesses in order to open up ICU beds for people infected with the coronavirus. And it is expected to begin receiving patients on Tuesday.

“We are here for you, we are fighting for you, and we are with you all the way and we always will be,” Trump said, addressing New Yorkers.

Trump also said the Comfort’s sister ship, the USNS Mercy, was deployed on the West Coast to support Los Angeles residents, and would offer them 1,000 medical beds, a medical lab and a pharmacy, among other medical functions.

The US is badly in need of more hospital beds

The United States reached a grim milestone on Thursday when it was announced that there are more active coronavirus cases here than any other nation in the world. That announcement comes in the wake of ramped up testing measures, although diagnostic tests are still in short supply — something that could be remedied in part by a new, rapid coronavirus test recently approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

Patients and doctors have also faced a growing shortage of emergency equipment, such as face masks and ventilators, and people with non-virus-related medical needs may be at risk of exposure to the virus simply by entering a hospital, medical officials have said.

In the face of overwhelmed hospitals, local and state officials have implemented their own partial quarantine or isolation measures, closing schools, entertainment establishments and restaurants, and barring large gatherings.

Many governors are beginning to order travelers from hard-hit areas, particularly New York and New Jersey, to self-isolate for fourteen days upon arrival elsewhere.

But as Vox’s Dylan Scott has explained, “even the most aggressive mitigation strategies — general social distancing, quarantines, closing schools — will not be enough to prevent US hospitals from being overwhelmed eventually unless we commit to such drastic measures until a vaccine becomes available,” a process that could take up to 18 months.

As Zeeshan Aleem has written for Vox:

USA Today said that its most “conservative” analysis based on data from the American Hospital Association, US Census, CDC, and World Health Organization found that “there could be almost six seriously ill patients for every existing hospital bed.” But that estimate, which assumes an infection rate similar to ordinary infection rates of the flu, is based on the idea that all hospital beds would be empty. In reality, two-thirds are generally full. With that occupancy rate taken into account, there would be 17 patients per open bed.

The Comfort and Mercy won’t solve this problem by themselves, but will certainly help in California and New York, both among the states hit hardest thus far by the coronavirus.

And, as Trump mentioned Saturday, there are other things the military can do in order to alleviate pressure on hospitals across the country, promising, “We are marshaling the full power of the American nation — economic, scientific, medical, and military — to vanquish the virus, and we will do that.”

In particular, the president touted the four field hospitals the US Army Corps of Engineers and FEMA have built in New York, California, and Illinois. More such hospitals could be needed in the days to come.

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