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Hospital ships, deployable medical units preparing to assist US communities affected by coronavirus

The USNS Comfort, shown here at Naval Station Norfolk in November 2019, will be sent to New York to help with the coronavirus outbreak.

MASS COMMUNICATION SPECIALIST SEAMAN DANIEL B. SERIANNI/U.S. NAVY

By CAITLIN M. KENNEY | STARS AND STRIPES Published: March 18, 2020

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WASHINGTON — The military is preparing its Navy hospital ships and alerting expeditionary medical units to support local government efforts to combat the coronavirus, Pentagon officials said Wednesday.

“The USNS Comfort and USNS Mercy are being prepared for deployment as needed to assist potentially overwhelmed communities with acute patient care,” Chief Pentagon Spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said Wednesday.

The Comfort will head to New York in a few weeks after it completes its maintenance currently being done in Norfolk, Va., Hoffman said. Speaking on CNN later, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said the Mercy will be deployed on the West Coast by the end of the month.

Each ship has a staff of 1,000 medical personnel. The military is working to identify active duty medical professionals to staff the ships, Hoffman said.

The ships and medical staff usually treat traumatic injuries, but the staffing can be adjusted to best address local needs, Air Force Brig. Gen. Paul Friedrichs, Joint Staff Surgeon, said Wednesday at the Pentagon.

The Pentagon has also alerted several expeditionary medical units from across the military to be on standby to deploy to set up field hospitals to support local efforts. Friedrichs would not say which specific units have been put on alert but said they would provide about 1,000 beds.

The ships and field hospitals will not treat patients infected with coronavirus but are intended to help open spaces at local hospitals for those who are, Esper said.

“We can take care of your trauma patients so that you could open up more rooms for patients with the [coronavirus] because what they require are special rooms that are sequestered, that have other capabilities that we don't necessarily have available to us,” Esper said.  “It's a different approach, but we want to make all that available so that we're doing everything we can to help the American people.”

Kenney.Caitlin@stripes.com
Twitter: @caitlinmkenney