U.S. Navy Humanitarian Assistance

Striking images from Monday, March 30, show the USNS Comfort hospital ship pulling past the Statue of Liberty and into New York Harbor. Meanwhile, docked in the Port of Los Angeles, the USNS Mercy hospital ship began accepting patients a day earlier. The ships are expected to treat non-COVID-19 patients, freeing up city hospital capacity for those who have tested positive for the virus. However, despite the focus on non-COVID-19 patients, infection control will remain a significant challenge, and sufficient testing capacity, personal protective equipment, and intensive cleaning procedures will be necessary to keep patients and naval personnel safe. If a significant number of patients or personnel were to fall ill, there could be significant backlash.

How did we get to the point of deploying Navy hospital ships domestically, and what lessons can be learned from the humanitarian missions such ships carry out abroad? A 2013 CSIS study of U.S. navy humanitarian assistance examines the benefits and challenges of naval health and humanitarian assistance and offers relevant recommendations on strategic coordination and planning.

J. Stephen Morrison is senior vice president and director of the Global Health Policy Center at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.

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