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In New York, Overflow Hospitals At Javits And On Navy Ship Have Been Largely Empty

The USNS Comfort hospital ship and an emergency hospital at the Javits Center are meant to be relief valves for hospitals in New York City, where more than 14,000 people have been hospitalized for COVID-19. But the facilities have been largely empty, leading officials to try to streamline their operations.

Now, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is hoping the Comfort can join the Javits Center on the front line of the fight against the coronavirus.

Cuomo said Monday that he will ask President Trump to allow the Navy ship to be used to treat COVID-19 patients, noting that the local health care system is under too much stress.

"Hospitals are pulling off miracles on a daily basis," Cuomo said. "But it is a monumental challenge to sustain this pace."

Both of the overflow hospitals were initially intended to serve only non-coronavirus patients. But the Javits Center was repurposed late last week to start accepting COVID-19 patients — and the hospital ship is no longer requiring a negative COVID-19 test prior to admission.

The procedural shifts have called for the two overflow centers to work closely together. According to the most recent admissions data released by the U.S. government, the facilities — both of which have 1,000-bed capacity — are serving fewer than 100 patients.

The USNS Comfort can perform its own coronavirus tests; it also has an intensive care unit with ventilators and isolation rooms for patients who test positive for the virus. The Navy says it can also safely isolate coronavirus patients.

"We have the ability right now to separate those patients," the ship's commanding officer, Capt. Patrick Amersbach, told NPR on Sunday. "We have multiple wards and they aren't full right now, so it's very easy to move populations around as needed to make sure we don't mix the two."

The Comfort is "now accepting asymptomatic, screened patients who will be isolated and tested immediately upon arrival," the Navy says. Anyone who tests positive for COVID-19 will then be moved to a nearby hospital.

The Javits Federal Medical Station, which is operated by the U.S. Army and staffed by doctors, nurses and other medical personnel through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, has begun transferring non-coronavirus patients onto the Comfort, as part of the preparation for the hospital in the cavernous convention center to treat COVID-19 patients.

The tweaks some as health officials scramble to respond to a crisis that has resulted in some 2,500 deaths from the contagious respiratory disease in New York City.

As of Friday, fewer than 100 of the more than 1,000 beds at the Javits Center were staffed by federal medical personnel, according to a spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

As of Sunday, the Navy ship had treated about 40 patients, most of whom were recovering from emergency surgeries conducted at hospitals on land.

Even before the policy change, every patient admitted to the Comfort was tested for the virus. Over the weekend at least two patients on-board tested positive, despite not showing symptoms of COVID-19 before they came aboard. One was discharged to another hospital on land, and one is still being treated in isolation on-board the ship, according to Amersbach.

Asked whether allowing coronavirus-positive patients onboard represents a failure of the ship's infection control systems, Amersbach said no.

"I don't think it was a mistake. I think it was one of these things that eventually it was going to occur anyway," he said.

With more than 1,100 medical staff aboard, the Comfort is a floating hospital that can provide surgeries, critical care and ward care. The ship arrived at a pier in Manhattan one week ago, marking its first deployment to New York City since the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

The Navy's other large hospital ship, the USNS Mercy, is carrying out a coronavirus support mission of its own in Los Angeles, where it is accepting patients referred from local hospitals.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.
Rebecca Hersher (she/her) is a reporter on NPR's Science Desk, where she reports on outbreaks, natural disasters, and environmental and health research. Since coming to NPR in 2011, she has covered the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, embedded with the Afghan army after the American combat mission ended, and reported on floods and hurricanes in the U.S. She's also reported on research about puppies. Before her work on the Science Desk, she was a producer for NPR's Weekend All Things Considered in Los Angeles.