The U.S.N.S. Comfort, the massive hospital ship that has been docked at Pier 90 for the past three weeks, deploys only for major missions: combat (Persian Gulf, 2002) and disaster relief (Haiti, earthquake, 2010). Between calls, a small crew primes the equipment and monitors the expiration date on supplies. The ship maintains a status of “ready five”—the capacity to mobilize within five days. Several weeks ago, as New York’s COVID-19hg0088 caseload ballooned into the thousands, the city requested backup: the hospitals, increasingly overwhelmed, needed somewhere to treat patients who were suffering from illnesses other than the coronavirus. The Comfort had a thousand beds, and a large health-care staff and crew. “This is like adding a whole other hospital,” Mayor Bill de Blasio declared, at Pier 90, shortly after the ship arrived. Behind him loomed the Comfort, with enormous red crosses painted on its bright-white hull. The crosses are meant to discourage enemy fire—it’s a war crime to attack a hospital ship—but they are also a symbol of rescue. De Blasio said, “Help has come.”

But had it? By April 2nd, the ship’s fourth day in port, a mere three patients had been treated. (The first had boarded on the afternoon of April 1st: an older woman, in acute renal distress.) The slow start left the ship’s wards, blood bank, radiology unit, CAT scanner, and twelve operating rooms largely unused. A local hospital administrator called the Comfort “a joke.” Joseph O’Brien, one of the ship’s captains, said that expectations of immediate “full capacity” were unrealistic. O’Brien, a helicopter pilot, who has also commanded humanitarian missions, noted, “It takes a little bit of time to get a rhythm, to get all the processes in place.” By April 6th, the Comfort had treated forty-two patients. Governor Andrew Cuomo asked the federal government to allow the ship to accept COVID cases. The White House granted the request, and the crew quickly reconfigured the space, cutting the bed capacity almost in half. It helped that the Comfort was built as an oil tanker: belowdecks, its highly compartmentalized design benefits the kind of isolation necessary for controlling infection. The medical staff and crew move among the seven main zones by walking up and over, as opposed to passing through the interior.

Normally, the crew cleans twice a day; now twelve sailors are disinfecting handrails and doorknobs once an hour. O’Brien said, “If I see someone standing still, they’d better have a Clorox wipe in their hand.” Before the Comfort admitted its first COVID patient, a crew member tested positive for the coronavirus. Most of the medical personnel were moved off the ship and into a nearby hotel. (They have no shore liberties; they are bused to and from work.) O’Brien’s stateroom had become his office. He had mounted his Cannondale CAAD10, the bike that he usually rides to work, in Virginia, onto a stationary computrainer. The crew—more than twelve hundred people—had expected, as he put it, to “live, eat, and breathe” on board for months.

The last time the Comfort got an S.O.S. from New York was on 9/11. With few survivors at the World Trade Center, the Comfort attended to first responders.For three weeks, the medical staff treated more than a thousand people—cuts, fractures, trouble breathing, emotional distress. Beds were provided for workers who had been sleeping on the street between shifts at Ground Zero. Cops and firefighters were invited on board for a hot breakfast. (One officer said, “We don’t get treated like this unless it’s Thanksgiving or Christmas.”) Massage therapists gave more than thirteen hundred massages. Supply officers replaced ripped clothing and boots. When the Comfort sailed out of New York, the ship’s Navy and Marine Corps crew lined the railings, wearing N.Y.P.D. and F.D.N.Y. caps.

Nineteen years later, a new crew lined the railings for the voyage in. Tom Von Essen, the fire commissioner during 9/11, who is now an administrator for FEMA working on COVID, said that on his way to greet the Comfort, for the second time, he had a flashback to 9/11. “The grief, of course, was enormous, but the operation seemed to get slightly better every day,” he recalled. “With this,” he added, “we’re not there yet.”

The Comfort’s patient load reached a hundred and forty-six last week, including ninety COVID cases. Three more of the ship’s personnel had contracted the virus. (All recovered.) Nineteen of the ninety-five ventilators on board were in use. The medical team had performed more than fifty surgical procedures, and had used its dialysis machine for the first time. The Comfort was learning that the fight changed constantly, a fact the city already knew. ♦


A Guide to the Coronavirus