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USNS Comfort offloads last patient ahead of New York departure

The Navy hospital ship was first deployed to care for patients without coronavirus but soon started accepting disease victims as the city’s hospitals became overrun.

NEW YORK — A Navy hospital ship has offloaded its last patient as it gets ready to set sail from New York City. The state is starting to test health care workers and first responders for coronavirus antibodies and data shows that hospitalizations for the disease have fallen to their lowest level in three weeks.

In another sign of the improving numbers, the final patient on the USNS Comfort was discharged on Sunday. The 1,000-bed hospital ship, docked at a Manhattan pier since March 30, has treated 182 patients. Soon, it will depart for its homeport in Norfolk, Virginia.

New York’s daily coronavirus death toll dropped to below 400, less than half of the deaths recorded at the height of the coronavirus crisis in the state's hospitals.

SHIPPING OFF

The Navy hospital ship sent to relieve stress on New York City hospitals at the height the pandemic was discharging or transferring its last 12 patients this weekend as it nears the end of its mission, according to Northwell Health, which provides operational assistance to the vessel.

Comfort, docked at a Manhattan pier since March 30, will soon leave for its homeport in Norfolk, where it will restock and be readied for another possible assignment, Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said. He did not provide a date for the ship’s departure.

As of Saturday, the 1,000-bed hospital ship had treated just 182 patients.

Originally deployed to care for patients without coronavirus, the Comfort switched gears and started accepting them as the city’s hospitals became overrun with people suffering from the disease.

Hoffman said the Comfort’s impending departure “is a sure sign of modest progress in mitigating the virus in the nation’s hardest hit city and is a welcome sign.”

A temporary hospital set up at a Manhattan convention center has also seen lower than projected patient volume. As of Saturday, the facility had treated a total of about 1,100 patients, with 125 still receiving care.

First envisioned as a 2,500-bed field hospital for people without the disease, the Javits Center was soon converted to a coronavirus-only hospital, but only ever topped out at about 500 beds.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency said Saturday that there is no official date for the closure of the facility.

“We are encouraged by the data which suggest the curve is flattening in New York and we are working with the city and state to begin the strategic drawdown of resources,” the agency said.

ANTIBODY TESTING

The state is starting to test health care workers for coronavirus antibodies and will do the same next week with transit and law enforcement workers as the state eases away from the worst days of the pandemic, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Saturday.

Doctors, nurses and other employees at four New York City hospitals that have handled high volumes of coronavirus patients will be the first tested under the new program, Cuomo said.

Antibody testing is a way of determining if a person has been infected by the coronavirus even if they hadn’t shown symptoms.

Making such testing widely available is seen as a key to reopening society, but the World Health Organization on Saturday warned there is currently no evidence that people who have antibodies are protected from coronavirus.

After weeks of reserving conventional coronavirus testing to people with symptoms to conserve supplies, the state is expanding eligibility to include first responders, health care workers and a long list of essential employees, such as bus drivers, dry cleaners, undertakers and grocery store workers.

“Why? Because these people have been carrying the load and they have been subjected to the public all during this crisis, and because they’re public facing,” Cuomo said. “These are the people you interact with.”

Cuomo said he is signing an executive order to allow pharmacies to serve as collection points for testing samples.

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HOSPITALIZATIONS DOWN

Cuomo’s testing announcements came as new data showed hospitalizations for coronavirus in the state falling to their lowest level in three weeks.

A little more than 13,000 people were being hospitalized for the disease on Friday, about the same level the state was at on April 1.

The state’s COVID-19 hospitalization tally peaked at 18,825 on April 12 and has fallen every day since.

New hospitalizations for the disease are also continuing to drop.

A rolling three-day average showed about 1,200 new hospitalizations for coronavirus on Friday, Cuomo said, the fewest since March 25.

“All of the numbers are basically saying the same, that we are in fact on the downside of the mountain,” Cuomo said.

The number of people dying in the state from the disease is also trending lower, though Friday’s total of 437 deaths was up slightly over Thursday’s tally.

The state peaked with 799 deaths in one day on April 9.

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Credit: AP
The Navy hospital ship USNS Comfort docks in New York, Monday, March 30, 2020.