The Navy hospital ship Comfort is deploying to New York Harbor well ahead of schedule and could arrive early next week to help relieve local hospitals overrun with coronavirus patients, according to the acting U.S. Navy secretary.
The ship had been expected to depart its port in Norfolk, Virginia, around April 3, Acting U.S. Navy Secretary Thomas Modly said Thursday, but it will now likely leave Saturday or Sunday.
The USNS Mercy hospital ship will port in Los Angeles on Friday to support the city's response to an overwhelming number of coronavirus cases.
Navy officials say both ships are preparing for a 1,000-bed mission, the largest these ships can accommodate.
The U.S. military's two hospital ships and other military assets, such as field hospitals, will provide triage and urgent care but will not treat coronavirus patients, because the ships are not designed with segregated spaces needed to treat infectious diseases.
Instead, their mission will free up local hospital beds and local medical professionals so they can devote more of their resources to isolating and treating those with the highly contagious COVID-19.
Two Army hospital units deploying to New York state will set up over the weekend and will be able to start seeing patients on Monday, Army Chief General James McConville said Thursday. The units are capable of providing nearly 300 total bed spaces.
Another Army hospital unit will soon deploy to Seattle, capable of setting up about 250 hospital bed spaces once the location is chosen.
More than 11,000 U.S. National Guard personnel are responding to the coronavirus pandemic in all U.S. states and territories and the District of Columbia, according to officials. Tasks range from delivering meals to screening symptoms for testing facilities.
The efforts come as the number of Defense Department-related coronavirus cases increased by more than a third in just 24 hours.
As of early Thursday, 574 coronavirus cases around the globe were related to the U.S. military — 280 service members, 134 civilians, 98 dependents and 62 contractors — the Pentagon said.
One U.S. defense contractor in northern Virginia has died from the virus.
"I think we need to do more to limit exposure, especially for those who are not doing mission-essential tasks," McConville said.
An Army memo released by Newsweek late Wednesday said that "mitigation measures taken by the U.S. Army to blunt the spread of COVID-19 have proven insufficient," with the coronavirus continuing its "spread geographically, as the number of infected persons continues to rise."
Lieutenant General Scott Dingle, the Army surgeon general, told reporters Thursday that he was "hoping that it is seasonal" and was looking at the "summer time frame" as to when the number of coronavirus cases would come down.
"The discipline of social distancing is going to be a key factor. If we don't, the numbers will increase, and then we are putting ourselves at risk," Dingle said.
On Wednesday, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper issued an order to all troops, civilian personnel and families to halt travel and movement abroad for up to 60 days, the latest sweeping move by the military to try to limit the spread of COVID-19.