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Acting Navy Secretary Resigns, USNS Comfort's Mission Is Changed


The big Navy hospital ship the Comfort docked in New York City last week. It was sent there to care for non-COVID-19 patients, easing the pressure on New York's overwhelmed hospitals. But this is now changing. The Defense Department says the ship will now accept coronavirus patients on board. And let's talk about why this is happening with NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Hi, Tom.


GREENE: So what more do we know about this ship? I mean, we should say, it is serving a community that has been so hard hit. New York City has become the epicenter of the outbreak in the United States.

BOWMAN: Well, David, this all came from New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who spoke with President Trump about getting COVID-positive patients aboard the Comfort. Cuomo says between the military field hospital set up at the Javits Convention Center and the Comfort, there'll be some 3,000 beds. Before this, both the Comfort and the emergency hospital at Javits had been largely empty. Comfort currently has 41 patients, five of whom have tested positive for COVID. Javits has 60 patients, all with COVID.

And I should add, David, that the Comfort has a sister ship at the Port of Los Angeles. That ship, the Mercy, also has 1,000 beds. There are currently some 11 patients on board. It, too, could take on COVID-19 patients. But there are no immediate plans to do so. A Navy spokesman said the dire conditions in New York are very different than conditions in Los Angeles.

GREENE: I suppose, in New York, what Cuomo is basically saying is, I mean, there just weren't that many people with non-COVID conditions who were coming to hospitals. And so why not make this ship change its role? But I just wonder, Tom, what is the process like here, I mean, as people transfer between hospitals and a ship?

BOWMAN: Well, you know, it's interesting. U.S. military officials point out that New York patients must give consent before being transferred from a New York hospital to the Javits Convention Center or the Comfort. Officials say they're putting together - get this - a pamphlet for hospitals explaining all this and to know what to expect. It's - here's the thing. It's not clear how many patients would want to go, want to make that move. So that could be a hurdle if people simply just don't want to be moved.

GREENE: Well, we should say, the Navy, you know, trying to help in New York City at a time when the Navy has a very public fiasco on its hands that you've been covering.

BOWMAN: That's right. The acting Navy secretary, Thomas Modly, resigned yesterday. Officials say he was not forced to do so. And this all began with an outbreak of coronavirus aboard the carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt. Modly abruptly relieved the captain who said the Navy just wasn't doing enough to help. And he sent this angry email letter to about more than 20 people, some outside the chain of command. Modly then flew out to Guam, where the carrier was based, and told the crew that Captain Brett Crozier was either stupid or naive to send the letter so widely.

Now, at first, Modly stood by his comments, then the next day apologized and then resigned. Modly will be replaced by Jim McPherson, a former admiral who is current undersecretary of the Army. But President Trump last month nominated his choice for Navy secretary, and that's Ken Braithwaite, another retired admiral.

GREENE: And briefly, Tom, how are people on that ship doing?

BOWMAN: Well, they're still testing them, David. More than three-quarters of the crew - about 5,000 sailors - has been tested. More than 200 have tested positive for the virus. But at this point, we're told no sailor has been hospitalized.

GREENE: That's good news. All right. NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Thanks, Tom.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.