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[PHOTOS] USNS Comfort: Federal aid for Puerto Rico’s health services

By on October 5, 2017

The USNS Comfort docked in San Juan port. (Yoel Parrilla/ CB)

SAN JUAN — Two weeks after Hurricane María passed over the island and with multiple potential public health risks, the island received the USNS Comfort, a floating hospital with the capacity to care for up to 1,000 patients.

The U.S. Navy hospital ship will offer support to Puerto Rico’s 69 hospitals, of which only 24 are currently being powered by the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (Prepa).

During a tour of the imposing ship, Gov. Ricardo Rosselló mentioned that although the ship is equipped to attend 1,000 patients, at the moment it only has enough staff for 250 patients and 50 more in intensive care.

  • (Yoel Parrilla/CB)

“If during the mission we observe that many more patients than anticipated arrive to the ship, then more personnel will come from the United States and will be incorporated to the boat as crew, and will increase the [the ship’s] capacity,” said P.R. Health Secretary Rafael Rodríguez Mercado, who was also present during the tour.

With the exception of neurosurgery, the facility is prepared to attend cases of cardiology, physical therapy, family medicine, internal and pediatric medicine, nephrology, neurology, optometry, ophthalmology, pediatric surgery, adult and pediatric critical care, obstetrics and gynecology, and mental health, among others.

As an example, Rodríguez Mercado, a retired military official, mentioned that “any patient who is undergoing a long drug therapy, who has passed the critical stage, can receive medical care here. In case of major evacuation from a hospital, patients can be moved here.”

Hope for Puerto Rico floats aboard the USNS Comfort

Since the strategy for using the boat has not yet been determined, the governor was not able to determine where it will be located, although it is anticipated that it will be moving around the island. In fact, on Thursday it was reported that the hospital ship will sail from San Juan to the western region of Puerto Rico to receive patients referred by the local Health Department.

If, for example, they determine that six of the island’s regions are doing well, but there is one that has a particular need, the ship can anchor near that region, the governor explained. However, he cautioned, “it is more likely that there are several regions with various necessities, and thus the vessel will be moving around, but also bringing service to the different areas.”

Not just a hospital

According to the governor, the Comfort, which has four operating rooms, offers two advantages: in addition to its functionality as a hospital, it can bring resources to other areas of the island. That plan has yet to be defined. Rosselló indicated that it will depend on the information he receives from seven hubs located at each of the island’s region.

These units, known as Disaster Medical Teams, are located at the San Juan Medical Center, San Lucas Episcopal Hospital in Ponce, La Concepción Hospital in San Germán, Pavía Hospital in Arecibo, HIMA San Pablo Fajardo, Ryder Memorial Hospital in Humacao and HIMA San Pablo Caguas.

The goal is to identify any patient care needs and anything else the region requires in terms of other products such as water, food and medicine. “As the boat makes its rounds along the island, resources can be dropped off in the areas that need it,” Rosselló said.


The ship, according to the governor, “is a great asset that I think will be game changing, particularly considering what we have been talking about during the past 72 hours, since our new focus must be to avoiding any public health problems,” he said.

Despite the fact that the Comfort’s presence on the island takes some of the burden off local hospitals, the Medical Center will remain the main health center on the island, working in coordination with the Puerto Rico Health Department, the US Department of Health and Human Services, and the hospital ship.

“We will have an extraordinary capacity to attend to our patients,” the governor declared.

The Comfort will remain in Puerto Rico “as long as the emergency lasts.” It has roughly 500 medical staff members and 700 members of the Navy aboard.

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