Military medical support in New York City, New Orleans and Dallas will expand to include COVID-19 patients, and the Navy hospital ship in New York Harbor will begin pier-side screening to reduce the backlog at hospitals, the Pentagon announced Friday morning.

The shift comes after commanders of the USNS hospital ships Mercy and Comfort said they’ve remained mostly vacant since they arrived in Los Angeles and New York City, respectively. Those vessels, and the Army field hospital established inside the Javits Convention Center in Manhattan, previously said they’d take only non-COVID-19 patients to serve as a relief valve for local hospitals.

The Defense Department has expanded that coverage to COVID-19 patients at the request of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA.

The change impacts the Morial Federal Medical Station in New Orleans and the Kay Bailey Hutchinson Federal Medical Station in Dallas, as well. Another medical station still being set up at the CenturyLink Center in Seattle was not included in the Pentagon announcement, but it has also not started accepting patients yet. All of these locations are DoD-supported, working alongside the Department of Health and FEMA.

The three locations will take COVID-19 positive patients in convalescent care, as well as low-acuity patients. Those types of patients require a lower level of medical care and must first be screened at a local hospital, the Pentagon said.

The new pier-side screening prior to being treated on the USNS Comfort will no longer require a negative test. Patients will, however, be screened by a temperature reading and a CDC questionnaire.

“We understand that introducing COVID-19 positive patients into the [federal medical station] environments elevates the risk of transmission to other patients and our medical providers,” a Pentagon statement reads. “This decision was risk-informed and made to ensure that DoD can continue to provide these local communities the type of medical care they most need.”

Defense officials will begin working with local authorities to determine the details of patient arrival in each area. The Pentagon statement added that the assistance will unburden local hospital and ambulance systems in these areas, allowing them to focus on the more serious COVID-19 cases.

Kyle Rempfer was an editor and reporter who has covered combat operations, criminal cases, foreign military assistance and training accidents. Before entering journalism, Kyle served in U.S. Air Force Special Tactics and deployed in 2014 to Paktika Province, Afghanistan, and Baghdad, Iraq.

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