Everything You Need To Know About The Navy Hospital Ship USNS Comfort

Before docking at New York, the hospital ship USNS Comfort has seen dozens of missions since its inception in the 1980s.
Raycene Nevils-Karakeci

The COVID-19 crisis is changing life as we know it. The viral outbreak that started in China last year has now spread to most countries. The lack of a vaccine or effective treatment and the relatively high number of fatalities has caused countries to close their borders, stop nonessential work, and encourage or force citizens to quarantine themselves at home. The effects of this pandemic are bringing life all around the world to a slowed, eerily other-worldly state.

Hospital Ship Sent to Save NYC 

The virus seems to be pushing every aspect of modern society to exist and function differently. Healthcare systems in many places are working at or beyond capacity. In the state of New York, one of America’s hardest-hit locations, there have been 83,712 cases to date. Of those cases, 47,439 are in New York City. The most densely populated city in the United States and a top tourist destination for travelers from every corner of the globe, New York was particularly vulnerable to the pandemic.

As countries struggled to make decisions regarding international travel to stop the flow of disease spread, New York continued for far too long to be an international hub, accepting and sending infected travelers during the pandemic. 


Because of overcrowding, New York hospitals typically operate near or at capacity. With COVID-19 causing respiratory distress and other life-threatening complications, people are rushing to emergency rooms to be tested and treated. This has brought the New York healthcare system to its knees. New York City hospitals are being described as War zones and with adjectives such as apocalyptic. there are not enough hospital beds, ambulances are overrun, vital equipment such as ventilators are limited and fatalities are unfortunately high. 

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Very similar to the situation in Italy, medical professionals in New York are having to make decisions regarding the treatment of COVID-19 patients and treatment of people with other illnesses. Reports of having to refuse care to cardiac patients are emerging. As serious as the outcomes of this outbreak are for patients, there is also a very high risk for medical workers. While many cities are just now responding to the spike in COVID-19 cases, New York has been under siege for weeks.

Governor Cuomo declared a State of Emergency on March 7, 2020, and nearly a month later, the situation is still dire. In response to Cuomo’s desperate pleas for relief from the pandemic claiming lives at an alarming pace, the US Navy dispatched a hospital ship called the USNS Comfort to relieve New York hospitals. The ship docked in New York on March 30, 2020, and started treating patients on April 1, 2020. New Yorkers lined up around the Hudson (some in violation of social distancing policies) to take photos of the USNS Comfort. 

Everything You Need To Know About The Navy Hospital Ship USNS Comfort
Source: Department of Defense/The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement.

USNS Comfort, A US Navy Hospital Ship

COVID-19 is not the first time the hospital ship has been used to aid in a crisis. Formerly an oil tanker, the hospital ship became the second US Navy Mercy class ship in 1987. Since then, the ship has been deployed over 10 times globally and on United States shores. Its first deployment was in the Persian Gulf War. In addition to aiding in international conflicts, which also include the Iraq War, the hospital ship has also served in several American disasters. It was used for relief in the September 11, 2001 tragedy and also for Hurricane Katrina.

The US Comfort provides not only military and natural disaster relief but is used to relieve hospital systems around the world when they are overwhelmed by political unrest or migration crises. The ship has provided treatments for Cuban and Haitian immigrants on multiple occasions. It was also deployed to Latin America during the Venezuelan refugee crisis 2018 for Operation Enduring Promise. Having served the medical needs of so many worldwide, the medical treatment ship has truly earned its name. 

USNS Comfort Loading for NYC Mission
Source: Department of Defense/The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement.

What’s Onboard This Hospital Ship?

The Comfort has 1,000 beds and 12 operating rooms. It is a full medical facility, with the capacity to accommodate 2,000 people, staff and patients included.  Currently, the ship has a crew of over 1,200. The facilities include 500 beds for low-risk patients. Furthermore, there are 400 beds for patients who need a higher level of care. Additionally, 80 beds are reserved for intensive care patients and 20 for patients recovering from surgical procedures.

The ship is equipped with dental facilities, radiation equipment, medical imaging, physical therapy and burn care ward, a pharmacy, an optometrist unit, a water distillery, an oxygen-producing plant, and reception areas for casualties. Functioning as a military relief hospital ship and a humanitarian response treatment ship, the Comfort and its long list of facilities are as extensive in size and function as you might imagine. 

The Comfort is about 10 stories, or 32 meters tall. It displaces around 70,000 tons of water. The floating hospital ship is 272 meters long. It can travel at speeds of up to 17.5 knots. The Comfort also has a flight deck that can accommodate military helicopter landings. The ship is white with large red crosses. This design aspect indicates its status as a navy hospital ship and protecting it from any hostile activity. Any attack against such a vessel is considered a war crime.

The Comfort is the second ship of its kind. Its sister ship, the USNS Mercy, was redesigned as a navy hospital ship in 1986, making it a year older than the Comfort. The ships are quite similar in design and capacity, with the Comfort being only slightly larger. Both vessels are used to provide relief to overwhelmed medical systems in times of crisis.

The US Mercy is currently deployed to Los Angeles to support the fight against COVID-19. Despite the military might of both hospital ships, there are inherent risks of being deployed for the purpose of pandemic support.

Comfort Hospital Ship Battles Coronavirus

While neither USNS Mercy nor USNS Comfort is being used to treat coronavirus patients, the risk of the virus spreading onboard as they treat patients that cannot be seen at currently overrun hospitals is quite high. As seen with the recent incidences of COVID-19 on cruise ships, ships provide a unique environment for the illness in terms of reproduction, with their abundance of inhabitable surfaces for the novel virus. Coronavirus is said to be able to live up to two weeks in an uninhabited ship. The implications of the ships being ideal environments for the virus in the context of a hospital ship are daunting to say the least. Precautions are being taken to protect the ship from becoming another ground zero in terms of the spread of disease.  Crew members are not allowed to disembark. Measures are being taken to encourage social distancing amongst the crew.

Social facilities onboard have been shut down. Even the fitness center on the ship is now closed to protect the crew from spreading the disease. However, the biggest challenge will be screening patients for Coronavirus. It is not yet clear which measures will be taken to ensure that patients being seen are not carriers of the virus. While the crew is having their temperatures regularly checked, it will be a larger challenge to decide which patients are at risk of the virus and should be turned around and seen at hospitals that are treating COVID-19.

The likelihood of a COVID-19 patient entering the ship is quite high, and once they board, the spread of the virus will depend entirely on the crew’s ability to contain it. Even President Trump avoided getting on board the ship to thank crew members or make a media appearance in order to avoid transmission of or exposure to the virus.

The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement.
Source: Department of Defense/The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement.

Challenges Aboard Hospital Ships 

While the risks of this type of relief are very high, the rewards are equally promising. The strain of the coronavirus crisis is being seen worldwide.  Economies are crashing to a halt, people are isolated at home, and governments around the globe are coming up with innovative ways to keep societies from succumbing to the crisis. Naval hospital ships are an ingenious way to provide support to overwhelmed medical systems. 

The capacity of hospital ships to prevent or at least aid in humanitarian disaster relief is largely made possible by the engineering that allows these ships to function as floating hospitals. The United States’ Mercy class ships have seen dozens of missions since their inception in the 1980s. However, despite updates and improvements, they largely function on electrical systems that were designed with older medical equipment in mind. Naval ship treatment in the case of our current pandemic has proved to be such a relief that there are talks of designating two additional ships to be Mercy class ships.

Upgrades to the electric systems and streamlined designs could make the ships even more efficient, according to MIT graduate students working on naval construction and design. Regardless of the current shortcomings in their systems and the uncertainty of their protection against the pandemic, naval ships such as the US Comfort may be the answer to the challenges of the biggest problem in our near future. 

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