As New York’s COVID-19 caseload ballooned into the thousands during the first wave of the outbreak, the city requested backup: the increasingly overwhelmed hospitals needed somewhere to treat patients who needed care unrelated to coronavirus. The United States Naval Ship (USNS) Comfort had a thousand beds and a large healthcare staff and crew — and the ship headed to the aid of the beleaguered New York health system.
Among the 600 doctors, nurses, and other crew on the ship was A. Scott Morris, MD, a Lieutenant in the Navy’s Medical Corps. Morris, who led the radiology division, reported for duty on the Navy hospital ship on March 18 and returned to Norfolk, Va., on May 2, after New York’s health system was more stable and the ship’s mission was complete. In a recent interview, Morris shared how the ship provided comfort to patients and relief to healthcare personnel — and also saved lives.
How did the radiology unit function on board the ship?
We had a total of 21 enlisted personnel, comprised of 20 RTs and one noncommissioned chief petty officer, and five radiologists — four diagnostic radiologists and one IR. We were able to provide services in conventional radiography, fluoroscopy, CT, US, and IR.
How long did it take for the ship to get into a rhythm of diagnosis and treatment?
Our original mission was to only treat patients who did not have COVID-19, but that changed within the first week. Early on, there were several pneumonia patients who had negative nasopharyngeal screening tests — in several cases, multiple negative tests — but continued to worsen clinically on antibiotics. CTs were performed, and the findings showed high probability for COVID-19, which led to bronchoscopy and induced sputum — which turned out to be positive.
After about a week, we rapidly saw an increase in our patient population, particularly in the ICUs. We went from very few ICU patients to treating nearly 40 at one time over the course of 10 days. One evening, our ICU accepted 11–12 patients during a 2-and-a-half hour period. While much of the focus was on COVID-19 patients, we treated a wide array of medical and surgical patients as well.
Were you ever afraid for your own health and well-being?
There was certainly a concern of contracting the virus. However, we used appropriate PPE when involved in direct patient care with a COVID-19 positive patient, and no radiology personnel ever developed symptoms of the virus. All radiology equipment was also sanitized and left to dry for one hour after use with a COVID-19-positive individual.
What was it like being on the USNS Comfort in New York City during the peak of the pandemic?
As a service member, it was an honor to provide medical care to our countrymen here at home. Very few civilians ever come in contact with the military directly (as we are designed to operate abroad) so this provided an opportunity for people to see us in action. However, it was difficult being away from my wife, Natalie, and my 2-year-old daughter, Audrey. Fortunately, we had excellent cell phone service and I was able to communicate with them daily. We developed a great working relationship with our critical care colleagues, and we provided excellent care to the people of New York.