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President Donald Trump will travel to Norfolk, Virginia, on Saturday to send off a U.S. naval hospital ship bound for New York, where it will relieve the city’s health care system, at the breaking point from the coronavirus outbreak.
Trump will fly aboard Air Force One for the first time in more than two weeks, as “social distancing” has curtailed not only the movements of average American citizens but those of the president as well.
He is scheduled to take part in a ceremony as the Comfort, a 1,000-bed hospital ship with large red crosses on its sides, sails for New York, which has become the epicenter of the U.S. coronavirus outbreak, with more than 44,000 infections. The city accounted for nearly 50% of all U.S. cases as of Friday, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.
The Comfort should arrive in New York Harbor by Monday. On the West Coast, its sister ship, the Mercy, arrived in Los Angeles, also battered by the virus, on Friday.
The Comfort sailed to New York in 2001, following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and has since undertaken domestic missions in the Gulf of Mexico in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria in 2017.
The visit to Norfolk will be Trump’s first trip outside of the Washington area March 6, when he visited the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta to discuss the government’s efforts to fight the pandemic. He then flew to his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida.
“The incredible naval hospital ship, the USNS Comfort, which is incredible actually when you see it inside, will be underway to New York city on Saturday,” Trump said at a press conference on Thursday. “I’m going to go out and I’ll kiss it goodbye.”
Trump said that he’d spoken to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo that afternoon to tell him the Comfort would be dispatched to the city sooner than anticipated. Military officials had said the ship needed several weeks of maintenance before sailing; Trump said it would arrive three weeks early.
Albert Shimkus, a professor of national security affairs at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, who was commanding officer of the Comfort in 2006, said in an interview on Friday that the ship is routinely maintained in Norfolk so that it’s always able to get underway within five days.
The Navy said this week that neither the Mercy nor the Comfort would treat coronavirus patients.
“They’re there to handle the overflow or — of acute trauma cases and other urgent needs, and they will not be handling pediatric cases or Ob-Gyn cases. This will allow our shore-based civilian hospitals to focus their medical care and resources on the treatment of Covid-19 patients,” Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly told reporters at a briefing on Thursday.
12 Operating Rooms
The Navy said that it had selected more than 120 volunteers from a group of reserve medical professionals for the mission to New York and that reserve sailors had also reported to the ship. The Comfort, placed into service in 1987, has 12 operating rooms, and it’s equipped to provide radiological services, lab work and diagnostic scans, among other features, according to the Navy.
“If you were to visualize the nature of the place where the patients come into it, it would be very similar to an E.R. at a civilian hospital,” Shimkus said.
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