Several Patients Test Positive For COVID-19 Aboard Hospital Ship Docked In N.Y. After It Loosens Screening Regulations

The U.S.N.S. Comfort, a hospital ship that arrived in New York to treat non-coronavirus patients, admitted some patients who then tested positive for COVID-19 after it loosened its screening regulations following criticism that it was being too slow to admit patients.

The Pentagon announced on Friday that the Javits Center in Manhattan, which has been transformed into a makeshift hospital with the capacity for 3,000 beds, would start taking in patients with COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

In a statement, the Pentagon also said that the Comfort would start screening patients pier-side "in an effort to reduce the backlog at some of the nearby New York hospitals." Previously, the ship's protocol required patients to have tested negative for the coronavirus before being permitted to embark.

Screening will no longer require a negative test, but patients will be screened by temperature and a short questionnaire, the statement said.

Following the announcement, a number of patients from the Javits Center were transferred to the Comfort, docked at Pier 90 in Manhattan, and tested for coronavirus.

A U.S. Navy spokesperson confirmed to Newsweek that all the patients were screened and isolated immediately on arrival and the "few" that tested positive were returned to the Javits Center for treatment as soon as was practical.

"While admitting patients who were transferred to U.S.N.S. Comfort for treatment, a few patients tested positive for COVID-19," Lt. Marycate Walsh said in a statement.

The U.S.N.S. Comfort navy hospital ship is docked at Pier 90 on April 3 in New York City as seen from West New York, New Jersey. Kena Betancur/Getty Images

"The patients were isolated immediately upon arrival and received care for the entirety of their time aboard the ship, and were transferred as soon as practical to the Javits Center, which is treating COVID-19 patients. Our medical experts on board are well prepared for cases like this, and have taken the appropriate precautionary measures. The Comfort is capable of continuing its mission."

She added that the ship has been working closely with city and health officials for the referral of non-coronavirus patients that arrive from any hospital or the Javits Center since its arrival.

"What is different is that instead of requiring a negative COVID-19 test prior to arrival at U.S.N.S. Comfort, we are now accepting asymptomatic, screened patients who will be isolated and tested immediately upon arrival," she added. She added the ship "has infection control procedures that are followed, just as any civilian hospital ashore" and the ship is equipped with appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE).

A U.S. official told Newsweek that the risk to the crew on the ship "remains low at this time," adding, "We were prepared for this, this was not a mistake, but evidence that the process is working."

The statement comes after the Comfort's relief effort was criticized following delays in admitting patients which left hundreds of beds empty aboard the ship despite the city's hospitals being inundated with coronavirus patients.

On Friday, it was reported that the ship had only taken on 20 patients since it began operations on April 1 despite being equipped with 1,000 hospital beds and 1,200 medical workers aimed to ease the strain on the city's hospitals.

According to The New York Times, various military protocols and other red tape, including nearly 49 medical conditions other than the COVID-19 virus that disqualify a patient from being admitted onto the ship, reportedly caused major roadblocks in easing the strain on the city's hospitals.

Michael Dowling, the president and chief executive officer of Northwell Health, New York's largest hospital system, told the newspaper that with city under lockdown, there are less patients suffering from car accidents and gunshot wounds or other accidents requiring emergency care and therefore, there are fewer non-virus patients to send to the U.S.N.S. Comfort, as the city copes with thousands of people infected with the virus.

"It's pretty ridiculous," he said. "If you're not going to help us with the people we need help with, what's the purpose?"

Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said the Department of Defense remains cautious about permitting COVID-19 patients on the hospital ship, but added that the policy is being reassessed on a daily basis. "We've all seen what happens on some of these ships like the cruise ships... it's not an environment built for handling infectious diseases en masse," Hoffman told reporters at the Pentagon on Friday, The Hill reported.

New York is the worst-hit state in the U.S., with more than 63,000 confirmed cases and 2,624 deaths in New York City alone, according to Johns Hopkins University.

World Health Organization advice for avoiding spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19)

Hygiene advice

  • Clean hands frequently with soap and water, or alcohol-based hand rub.
  • Wash hands after coughing or sneezing; when caring for the sick; before, during and after food preparation; before eating; after using the toilet; when hands are visibly dirty; and after handling animals or waste.
  • Maintain at least 1 meter (3 feet) distance from anyone who is coughing or sneezing.
  • Avoid touching your hands, nose and mouth. Do not spit in public.
  • Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or bent elbow when coughing or sneezing. Discard the tissue immediately and clean your hands.

Medical advice

  • Avoid close contact with others if you have any symptoms.
  • Stay at home if you feel unwell, even with mild symptoms such as headache and runny nose, to avoid potential spread of the disease to medical facilities and other people.
  • If you develop serious symptoms (fever, cough, difficulty breathing) seek medical care early and contact local health authorities in advance.
  • Note any recent contact with others and travel details to provide to authorities who can trace and prevent spread of the disease.
  • Stay up to date on COVID-19 developments issued by health authorities and follow their guidance.

Mask and glove usage

  • Healthy individuals only need to wear a mask if taking care of a sick person.
  • Wear a mask if you are coughing or sneezing.
  • Masks are effective when used in combination with frequent hand cleaning.
  • Do not touch the mask while wearing it. Clean hands if you touch the mask.
  • Learn how to properly put on, remove and dispose of masks. Clean hands after disposing of the mask.
  • Do not reuse single-use masks.
  • Regularly washing bare hands is more effective against catching COVID-19 than wearing rubber gloves.
  • The COVID-19 virus can still be picked up on rubber gloves and transmitted by touching your face.