WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump will send off a naval hospital ship Saturday before it heads to New York City, as he aims to highlight the federal response to the coronavirus pandemic.
The USNS Comfort, a 1,000-bed hospital ship, had been undergoing planned maintenance, but was rushed back into service to aid the city which is now the epicenter of the nation's outbreak. It is scheduled to arrive Monday at a Manhattan pier a week after its sister ship, the USNS Mercy arrived in Los Angeles to preform similar duty on the West Coast.
The president acknowledged that making the 140-mile trip to Naval Station Norfolk wasn't necessary, but said he was doing it to recognize the work of sailors and medical professionals who worked to get the ship out of maintenance more than a week ahead of schedule.
"I think it's a good thing when I go over there and I say 'thank you,'" Trump told reporters Friday. He added he wanted to make the trip to show "spirit for the country."
Trump, 73, is in a high-risk category because of his age, and federal guidance for weeks has advised those in that pool to refrain from non-essential travel of all sorts. He has already tested negative once after close contact with officials who came down with the virus.
"It doesn't mean I'm going to be hugging people and it doesn't mean that I'm going to be shaking people's hands and everything," Trump said. "But I think it sends a signal when the president is able to go there and say thank you. So, you know, we'll be careful."
It marks Trump's first trip outside Washington since March 9 and only his second outside the gates of the White House since a March 19 trip to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
It comes a day after the president took a round of steps to expand the federal government's role in helping produce critically needed supplies to fight the coronavirus pandemic even as he warned the leaders of hard-hit states not to cross him.
"I want them to be appreciative," Trump said Friday after the White House announced that he would be using the powers granted to him under the Korean War-era Defense Production Act to try to compel auto giant General Motors to produce ventilators.
Yet Trump — who hours earlier had suggested the need for the devices was being overblown — rejected any criticism of the federal government's response to a ballooning public health crisis that a month ago he predicted would be over by now.
"We have done a hell of a job," Trump said, as he sent an ominous message to state and local leaders who have been urging the federal government to do more to help them save lives.
Trump said he had instructed Vice President Mike Pence not to call the governors of Washington or Michigan — two coronavirus hotspots — because of their public criticism. "If they don't treat you right, I don't call," Trump said.
The nearly 900-foot-long USNS Comfort, which was once an oil tanker, is a floating trauma hospital designed to care for service members who've been in combat.
But on this mission, it will essentially serve as a community hospital.
"What we're bringing to the people of New York is a hospital ship with a maximum capacity of 1,000," said Capt. Patrick Amersbach, the commanding officer of the medical treatment facility aboard the Comfort.
The ship has 12 operating rooms as well as radiology suites and a CT scanner. It also has ICU beds, a lab and a pharmacy.
The 1,100 or so medical staff on board are mostly active duty service members from the U.S. Navy, and some reservists, who serve on the East Coast.
"I really want to thank the families - those who are staying behind," Amersbach said. "Because this is a national crisis. And their loved ones are leaving to go north to help those in New York. I really appreciate what they're doing and the sacrifices they are making."
The arrival of the oblong ship, with its white hull and red crosses, is often a signal of the severity of a crisis.
Since the current iteration of the USNS Comfort launched in 1987, the vessel has responded to wars in the Middle East, Hurricane Katrina and New York City after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
But the current mission is unprecedented in the ship's century long history, which stretches back to World War I.
"We've never deployed a hospital ship stateside specifically for a response in a global pandemic," said André B. Sobocinski, a historian for the U.S. Navy Bureau of Medicine and Surgery.
The closest the USNS Comfort has come to being in a situation like this was during World War I and the flu pandemic, Sobocinski said.
The ship ferried soldiers from Europe back to the states, and some of the men most likely had the flu. The Comfort also handled overflow soldiers from military hospitals in New York. The difference now is that the ship is handling overflow from civilian hospitals in the city, Sobocinski said.
Associated Press writer Ben Finley in Norfolk, Virginia, contributed to this report.