Navy Hospital Ship Rushing To New York, Repairs Unfinished, For COVID-19 Crisis

Trump is planning a trip to Norfolk Saturday as the USNS Comfort puts to sea, giving him a photo op as the hospital situation in New York becomes a crisis.

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Navy’s hospital ship Comfort is putting to sea Saturday with some repairs and maintenance unfinished to help New York City cope with the coronavirus pandemic — and give President Donald Trump a public relations boost.

Trump, who has downplayed the severity of the virus but has not left Washington, D.C., since early this month, announced that he will fly on Saturday to Norfolk, Virginia, where the converted oil tanker has been undergoing long-deferred work since December.

“I think I’m going to go out and I’ll kiss it goodbye,” Trump said Thursday. “The ship will arrive, and I believe it’s going to get a little bit of a ceremony. There’s something very beautiful about it. It’s an incredible piece of work.”

Among the tasks that were left for later was work on the ship’s water ballast tanks, which will be done later this summer, Navy spokesman Cdr. Clay Doss told HuffPost. “All other scheduled work including engine overhauls, boiler inspections, and annual firefighting inspections was accomplished during this maintenance period,” he said. “No significant maintenance was deferred or canceled to make the ship ready to deploy to New York ... The bottom line is that we wouldn’t get underway if we couldn’t do so safely and confidently ― same is true for all U.S. Navy ships.”

The Navy has stated that the 1,000-bed hospital ship with the distinctive white hull and bright red crosses is designed to handle trauma cases, not infectious disease patients, and would not be caring for those suffering from COVID-19, the disease caused by coronavirus. The ship and medical staff aboard would nevertheless help the city cope with the surge in illnesses there by taking some of the non-COVID-19 cases — heart attacks, accidents, et cetera ― that continue to arise and need treatment.

In this Jan. 20, 2010, file photo, the Military Sealift Command hospital ship USNS Comfort is anchored off the coast of Haiti to support Operation Unified Response.
In this Jan. 20, 2010, file photo, the Military Sealift Command hospital ship USNS Comfort is anchored off the coast of Haiti to support Operation Unified Response.

Trump’s announcement Thursday reflects the accelerated schedule to deploy the vessel since he first mentioned on March 18 that he would send it to New York. “They are in tip-top shape. They soon will be. They’re getting ready to come up to New York,” he said during a White House briefing about the Comfort and sister ship Mercy, while also confusing their locations and destinations. “So those two ships are being prepared to go, and they can be launched over the next week or so.”

That same day, top Defense Department and Navy officials said that while the Mercy could leave relatively quickly from San Diego northward for Los Angeles, the Comfort needed more work. “That’s not a days issue, that is a weeks issue,” Jonathan Hoffman, assistant defense secretary for public affairs, told CNBC.

Trump appeared to acknowledge that reality in a briefing Sunday, when he said the Comfort would sail in “three or four weeks.”

Three days later, the Defense Department said the ship would sail by April 2 — only to have Trump announce Thursday of the new deployment date this week.

In 2017, the 45-year-old ship was suffering among many others from the Navy’s long-running problem of “deferred maintenance” caused by an aging fleet and exacerbated by the Budget Control Act of 2011 that House Republicans demanded under President Barack Obama to shrink federal deficits.

Coast Guard forms in 2017 detailed a laundry list of necessary repairs, from a cracked turbine casing in the ship’s boiler needed for propulsion to a nonworking public address system — a critical safety feature in a 900-foot ship — to problems with the fire suppression system, according to Robert Frump, a former maritime industry journalist who now operates a blog about commercial shipping.

The Coast Guard shut off public access to the vessel inspection database last year, he said, making it impossible to determine how and when those issues were resolved. He added that it was obvious why Trump wants the ship in New York quickly: “It’s white. It looks great. A photo op, honestly.”

Despite the problems in 2017, the Comfort was deployed to Puerto Rico in 2018 after Trump received sustained criticism for his halting response to Hurricane Maria and then on a five-month goodwill trip to Latin America last year that ended in November.

“Everyone involved is interested in providing DoD assistance as quickly as possible as we work with our interagency partners to check the spread of COVID-19,” said Army Lt. Col. Chris Mitchell, a Defense Department spokesman.

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