A US Navy admiral begged the Cuomo administration to send patients to the nearly-empty hospital ship docked on the Hudson River during the height of the pandemic — but his pleas were met with politics and paranoia, The Post has learned.
With city medical facilities packed with critically ill COVID patients in the spring of 2020 — and just days after the infamous edict by Gov. Andrew Cuomo to send COVID patients to nursing homes, which critics say resulted in thousands of deaths — the Trump administration sent the USNS Comfort, a 1,000-bed ship, to relieve hospitals of patients with non-COVID illnesses.
Another federal facility was set up in the Jacob Javits Center in midtown. Both famously sat mostly empty during their time of operation — with city, state and federal officials blaming each other for the issue at the time.
But in a trove of recently unearthed government emails obtained by activist Peter Arbeeny and provided to The Post, a frustrated Vice Admiral Mike Dumont urged the Cuomo administration to act.
“We could use some help from your office,” he wrote in an April 7, 2020 missive to Cuomo’s top aide, Melissa DeRosa. “The Governor asked us to permit use of USNS COMFORT to treat patients without regard to their COVID status and we have done so. Right now we only have 37 patients aboard the ship. Further, we are treating only 83 patients at the Javits Events Center.
The Javits Center had space for 2,500 beds.
“We have been trying for days to get the Health Evacuation Coordination Center (HECC) to transfer more patients to us but with little success. We are told by NYC officials the HECC falls under the State’s Department of Health,” the email continued. “Our greatest concern is two-fold: helping take the strain off local hospitals, and not wasting high-end capabilities the US military has brought to NYC. We appreciate the help.”
Within minutes, DeRosa circulated the admiral’s message to the state’s top COVID officials, including Michael Kopy, director of New York’s emergency management office and city Health Commissioner Howard Zucker. Michael J. Dowling, the private CEO of Northwell Health, the state’s largest health care provider, was also tagged.
Kopy, speaking for the state, became defensive — and blamed The Comfort for overly onerous regulations.
“[HECC] are following criteria established by the comfort for admission to the comfort as well as criteria for the Javits,” he wrote.
DeRosa, sniffing a plot, pivoted to politics, telling the trio to be on guard and accusing Dumont of trying set up Team Cuomo to blame for the empty facilities.
“They are setting this up to say that we are the reason the ship and javitts [sic] are empty –I’m going to loop you guys on the email. we need to make clear in writing that what he has written here is not true,” she told Kopy, Zucker and Dowling.
Dumont, who retired in 2021, told The Post he was disheartened by DeRosa’s reaction, which was relayed to him by The Post.
“It is discouraging to learn they completely misread and misunderstood the request for assistance,” he said. “We had neither the time nor the interest in setting anyone up for blame.
“My request was solely to highlight the low numbers of patients being treated and ask for their help in better utilizing the military medical resources available. There was nothing in the request that was not truthful, and we never claimed anyone was preventing the transfer of patients to treatment sites provided by the US military. How they reached these conclusions is both perplexing and discouraging.”
Team Cuomo has long insisted the ship itself was mostly a fed photo-op and that narrow regulations governing who could be admitted were the real reason it sat mostly empty.
“The fed’s own bureaucratic rules prevented the ship from being utilized — but by the time it arrived and finally allowed COVID patients on board, fears about the hospitals getting overburdened had largely passed as we increased capacity, balanced patient loads between facilities and New Yorkers banded together to crush the curve,” said Cuomo spokesman Rich Azzopardi.
An April 7 memo from the state Department of Health noted in red that the “USNS Comfort cannot support patients with these conditions at this time” before going on to list 45 different conditions including “known pregnancy,” “all neurosurgical procedures,” and “any immunosuppressed patients.”
“These limits are based upon limited pharmacy capacity, unique medical equipment requirements the ship does not have, or lack of medical specialists in those fields onboard the ship capable of handling those types of patients,” Dumont said.
The flurry of communications between the officials took place just days after Cuomo’s executive order forcing nursing homes to accept COVID positive patients. Critics say the March 25 order led to at least 15,000 deaths. Team Cuomo justified the order by noting hospitals had been overfilled.
Assemblyman Ron Kim (D-Queens), who reviewed the exchange of emails, said it followed a pattern by top Cuomo aides of “controlling the politics of the moment rather than actually fixing the problem.”
“Everything was a conspiracy to attack the administration and I don’t think that is what the admiral or the US government intended,” Kim said.
The Comfort arrived to much fanfare in New York City on March 30, 2020. New infections were spreading out of control, hospitals were overflowing with patients, and supplies were so short, first responders were reduced to wearing garbage bags.
In the end, however, the red tape proved too much, with the ship treating only 182 patients, and Javits only 1,095 people.
“This was Trump’s federal government, which constantly played politics with everything related to New York and COVID and so it yes, it should shock no one that we were skeptical of their motives. As is evident from the emails, the red tape the admiral claimed prevented patient inflow did not exist. If his feelings were hurt, we’re sorry about that,” Azzopardi said. DeRosa declined to comment.