Everything you need to know about the USNS Comfort, the giant hospital ship in NYC

On March 30 at 10:00 a.m.ET, the U.S. Navy’s giant floating hospital ship, the USNS Comfort, arrived in New York City, where it was sent to relieve pressure on the city’s hospitals flooded with coronavirus patients.

The Comfort’s 1,000 beds and 12 operating rooms will largely be used for non-coronavirus patients, freeing up much-needed space in the city’s congested hospitals. The ship is typically used to support military campaigns and humanitarian crises abroad, along with earthquakes and hurricane relief. It was recently deployed in Latin America, helping countries with inadequate healthcare systems. It was last stationed in New York City after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, where it helped treat hundreds of first responders.

The ship has been in existence for more than four decades and is deployed all over the world. Here’s everything you need to know about the USNS Comfort.

It is a converted oil tanker. The ship did not start as a hospital ship, but as a San Clemente oil super tanker called the SS Rose City. It was built by the National Steel and Shipbuilding Company in San Diego in 1976. The US Navy bought it in 1987 along with another super tanker, with the aim of converting both into Mercy-class hospital ships. Comfort’s sister ship, the USNS Mercy, is currently deployed on the West Coast.

But as a converted oil tanker, moving patients around can prove to be difficult. The bulkheads used to separate the oil were not removed during the retrofitting, and no hatches were added to improve horizontal movement through the ship. Most patient movements from one area to another should be made by first going to the deck and then down again.

Painted white with several prominent red crosses, the ship’s appearance is designed to illustrate its purpose and protect its crew and cargo from hostile attacks. The Geneva Convention protects hospital ships when they are not carrying ammunition or weapons; every country that fires at a country is accused of an international war crime.

Comfort is a big ship, really big. The ship is about 30 meters long, which is the size of a 10-storey building. It has a deep draft – it displaces 70,473 tons of water – and in many ports it must be at least a mile from the coast. Over 894 feet long (272 meters), the Comfort is roughly the length of three football pitches and can travel at a speed of 17.5 knots (20.1 mph).

To receive patients, the Comfort has a large helipad, with the capacity to land large military-grade helicopters. The ship also has the ability to receive patients from other moored ships. Comfort can be fully activated and staffed within five days.

It can take many patients. The Comfort has 1,000 beds, 500 of which are for minimal cases, another 400 for intermediate cases, 20 for surgical recovery and 80 for intensive care patients. Although the Comfort will dock in New York City, it has been designed with a large round hull for improved stability in operations and other intensive procedures to be performed at sea.

But the Comfort offers much more than just beds. According to MilitaryFactory.com (which uses feminine pronouns to describe the ship):

She is a complete medical facility with even a dental clinic, four X-ray machines and a CT scanner. A pair of oxygen-producing plants, an optometry lab and coolers for 5,000 blood units are all part of her toolbox. Comfort is a hospital that can accommodate up to 2,000 people on board, the crew in conjunction with patients, and can provide much needed water to both, as it maintains a freshwater plant that produces up to 300,000 gallons of water per day. Other onboard services include a satellite laboratory and a central room for receiving sterile causality. A medical supplies depot and a well-stocked pharmacy are all included. Due to the nature of her work, she has a large laundry and her own morgue.

The Comfort has been for both war zones and disasters. The ship has been to Haiti at least twice in recent years: once in 1994 to assist migrants seeking to escape the unrest and again in 2010 after a magnitude 7 earthquake destroyed the country’s capital, Port-au-Prince.

It has also deployed several times in the Persian Gulf over the years. Comfort was stationed near Kuwait and Saudi Arabia in 1990 and saw 8,700 patients, 2,100 helicopter landings and 337 operations in the 12 operating rooms. It was also stationed there in 2002 during the US invasion of Iraq.

In addition to 9/11, Comfort has been deployed in U.S. waters to help respond to various disasters. In 2005, the ship was sent to New Orleans and Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina devastated the region. The ship helped treat 2,000 patients during the seven weeks it was stationed in the Gulf of Mexico.

Before the ship arrived in New York today, it was serviced in Norfolk, Virginia, which the Pentagon originally estimated would take weeks. But the Navy, in conjunction with the Army Corps of Engineers and the State Department, got the job done in eight days, according to New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.

The need for additional hospital capacity in New York City is enormous. In addition to Comfort, the city is also building field hospitals in the Javits Center and in Central Park.

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