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The USNS Comfort, which was designed to save lives in combat, has quickly been adjusting to treating COVID-19 patients to help reduce the strain and pressure now placed upon the New York area hospital system. Transported by local EMS, COVID-19 patients are transferred with specific protocol to ensure they live, senior Navy officials say.
“We are working closely with the Javits Center. We have liaison officers that support our mission who are in communication with local hospitals. This is a very critical process. We do handoffs from doctor to doctor, which are systematically done through the local EMS system. Some patients are on a mobile ventilator,” Capt. Patrick Amersbach, commanding officer of the USNS Comfort, told Warrior in an interview.
Drawing from the military’s mission to adapt to changing warfare conditions, Amersbach explained that the ship recently added 40 new doctors and nurses from the surrounding area to further strengthen its on-board ICU.
"We have over 30 patients in the ICU, some suffering from acute respiratory distress and multi-system organ failure. Our ICU is capable of treating 80 patients overall. We are doing our best to maximize their care. We have 19 patients on ventilators. We have been able to take some of those critical patients who are intubated … until they become extubated (breathing tubes removed). Patients are getting better,” Amersbach said.
Overall, the USNS Comfort has discharged 60 patients, some of which have recovered from an otherwise critical condition caused by COVID-19.
USNS Comfort personnel have been making special adjustments to wards on board the ship to properly isolate COVID-19 patients. The crew, Amersbach explained, is holding up well amid the added challenge; they have enough equipment and PPE, including up to 50 ventilators. PPE is, of course, crucial for a variety of reasons, given the rapid and dangerous transmission of the virus.
Preventing transmission can, of course, be a significant challenge, given how easily viral droplets can travel through the air. Interestingly, this danger was highlighted in an April 15 essay in The New England Journal of Medicine that cited studies explaining how viral agents can transmit from human-to-human through speech.
“The act of speaking generates oral fluid droplets that vary widely in size, and these droplets can harbor infectious virus particles. Whereas large droplets fall quickly to the ground, small droplets can dehydrate and linger as “droplet nuclei” in the air, where they behave like an aerosol and thereby expand the spatial extent of emitted infectious particles,” the essay states. (“Visualizing Speech-Generated Oral Fluid Droplets with Laser Light Scattering” New England Journal of Medicine)
Doctors and scientists further understood and studied this phenomenon using cutting edge laser-scattering techniques to essentially highlight or “light up” viral particles, the essay explains.
Protecting patients and crew is, of course, a vital part of the Navy mission, which Amersbach described as a fast-moving effort to “adapt” as a force would in war.
“I’m very proud to help this mission. I have been in the military for a long time supporting our nation around the world. There is nothing more gratifying than supporting people of the U.S. Our crew is working around the clock and understands the gravity of the situation.”