MODERATOR: Thank you all for calling in and thank you for your patience. Welcome to the Foreign Press Center’s telephonic briefing on the upcoming deployment of the U.S. Navy hospital ship USNS Comfort.
We’re pleased to have three briefers today to discuss the mission: U.S. Navy Captain B.J. Diebold, commander, Task Force 49, he is the mission commander; U.S. Navy Captain Kevin Buckley, he is the commanding officer of the military treatment facility; and Captain David Murrin, who is the USNS Comfort’s ship’s master.
Their bios were in the announcement you received, so I will not go into details here. Our briefers will give some opening remarks and then I will moderate a brief Q&A. I will ask you, please, to observe an embargo on the contents of this briefing for the duration of the call. I’ll lift that embargo when we finish.
And with that, let me please turn over the floor to Captain Diebold.
CAPT DIEBOLD: Hello, good morning, everyone. This is Captain Brian Diebold. I’m the commander of Task Force 49 and overall in charge of the USNS Comfort 2019 deployment. We are about to embark on a five-month deployment down throughout the U.S. Southern Command area of operations to provide a humanitarian assistance mission that will consist of multinational personnel from across our partner nations, as well as allies and other partners. Nongovernmental organizations will be involved as well as U.S. Navy military personnel.
It’s a great honor to have this opportunity. We really look forward to this mission and look forward to continuing to build and strengthen our partnerships throughout the region. Thank you.
MODERATOR: Captain Buckley.
CAPT BUCKLEY: Good morning. This is Captain Kevin Buckley. I am the commanding officer and emergency medicine physician of the medical treatment facility. I have 197 credentialed medical professionals that are joint forces – that’s public health, Navy, and Army providers on board – combined with my full staff of over 800 people. We expect – we have – currently have 13 multinational providers, including from Canada, Mexico, Brazil, Australia, Costa Rica, as well as a few more that are coming downrange. There’s over another – 100 providers coming from the civilian NGO partners as well as other host nations that will – potentially are being considered for joining us during the mission stop. I can appreciate the short timeline; it made it very challenging for some of them to join us leaving Norfolk. So we have – we anticipate their arrival further downrange.
We expect to help thousands of people on this mission and to impact lives. We will be providing surgeries on board, and these are low-risk surgeries that have high economic impact. And if you look at civilian leadership – civilian literature, things like cataracts, laparoscopic cholecystectomies, hernia repairs have some of the biggest impact in these countries economically and as a force multiplier to help more than just the patient themselves but help their families.
We have a full component of dental providers on board, including pediatric dentists and dental hygienists, as well as optometrists and a number of eye glasses – the gift of sight is a wonderful type thing – as well as our primary care, including pediatrics, internal medicine, women’s health. And we do have, like I mentioned, a number of surgical capabilities on board as well.
We look forward to providing as much impact – my team is ready and charged and very excited to go forth and make a difference, and work with our host nation partners and ministers of health of each of the countries we’re going to, as alignment with them and providing care for the best quality care for their populations. Thank you.
MODERATOR: Thank you. And Captain Murrin, please.
CAPT MURRIN: Good morning. Captain Dave Murrin here, the civilian master with Military Sealift Command. My primary role in this deployment is, as ship’s master, moving the ship safely from port to port, through chokepoints and canals. Primarily I’m responsible for the safety of life at sea for approximately 1,200 Mariners and Navy sailors. My first charge, of course, is to get the commodore to where he needs to be, and then provide a safe facility for Captain Buckley so he can operate the hospital. Over.
MODERATOR: Thank you very, very much. With that, we do have time for some questions. If I may please briefly review the ground rules. We are on the record, albeit under embargo. Please state your name and the name and country of your media outlet if you’re asking a question, and please limit yourself to one question so that we can maximize opportunities for all participants to get a question in the time we have. Let me please also note that our briefers will be taking questions exclusively about the USNS Comfort’s mission and capabilities. Any questions about U.S. foreign or regional policy you can send to me at email@example.com, and I will direct them to an appropriate office for a response.
And the question queue is open.
I commend the Navy for its thoroughness in providing a briefing that has answered everyone’s questions in advance, but let me give you one more chance. Do we have anyone who’d like to ask a question of our briefers, please?
OPERATOR: Just as a reminder, if you would like to ask a question, please press * then 0 on your touchtone phone. You’ll hear the acknowledgment tone, and an operator will take your name. After we have gathered your name, then you may press a *0 to be placed in queue to ask. I do show people are queueing up now. One moment.
MODERATOR: Okay. We can take the first question in the queue, please.
OPERATOR: We’re still waiting for the – once you’ve given your name, with the *0, please press *1 so we’ll queue you up into the question-and-answer – *0 for your name, and *1 to open question-and-answer for you.
MODERATOR: Okay. Could we please start with Luis Alonso, please?
QUESTION: Hi, good morning. You hear me?
MODERATOR: Yes, we can hear you.
QUESTION: Great. Thank you for this, for this opportunity. And I would like to get a comment from you guys about the main mission of – main goal of this mission. I understand the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela and the impact in the region. Is that the reason for this mission? And if you could also make a comment on would this mission would be similar or different to the one recently made in the region last year, I think it was? Thank you.
CAPT BUCKLEY: Since I was the commanding officer on the previous mission, I can say from the medical package it’s very similar. We do have a few other capabilities we’re bringing this time, because we have a little longer period of time going. So I think we’re also bringing some veterinarian services and some public health services onboard to help with the exchange of ideas with host nation partners. This is all for partnership and developing our – and further developing relationships with our partners in the – to the south of the United States.
CAPT DIEBOLD: And this is Captain Diebold. I wanted to just kind of jump on the second part of your question. This is not specifically focused on the Venezuelan crisis, although that is part of it. Many of the countries have a large abundance of cross-border migrants. What the medical care that will be provided – all of the patients will be vetted through the partner nations’ ministries of health. And so it’s not specifically just for Venezuelan or to support the Venezuelan crisis. Although it will definitely impact and help support that crisis, it is not the specific mission. Did that answer your question, sir?
QUESTION: Yes, it does. Thank you very much.
MODERATOR: Okay. If we could ask – and I apologize for pronunciation here – the next question to Henoc Cajou.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) for someone to benefit the treatments that you will give?
MODERATOR: Sir, I think we lost part of your question. Could you repeat it, please? Sir, could you repeat your question?
QUESTION: Yes. How long will you stay in Haiti? That’s the first part. The second part: What will be the process for someone to benefit the —
CAPT DIEBOLD: Sir, each one of the – this is Captain Diebold. Each one of the mission stops in all of the countries that we’re attending will be approximately 10 days in length. The process for which people in each of those countries needs to go through to seek medical care will be directed through the local ministries of health that are working in close ties with the U.S. embassy in each one of the countries.
CAPT BUCKLEY: This is Captain Buckley. Just – so there’s 10 days, but two days on each side of that are setup and teardown. There will be six clinical days per each country, each mission stop.
MODERATOR: Thank you. We can take a question, please, from David Alandete, please.
QUESTION: Yeah, hi. Can you hear me?
QUESTION: I may have missed this, but could you please briefly repeat the countries that you guys are going to stop in? And I mean, you were talking about Venezuela, and I think the first question was related to this. And I know – we know that this not specific for Venezuela, but you have said like the Venezuelan crisis is taking a toll in the neighboring countries. They have help for health from the international community to treat people that have very serious illnesses and that have actually left Venezuela because they can’t get access to treatment, you know. And you’ve mentioned cataracts and problems that are serious, but there are other types of illnesses that go untreated in children, like – I’m talking of kids with cancer, leukemia. Are you able to provide any help for these people who are currently in Colombia, maybe in the islands in the Caribbean, that have actually abandoned Venezuela and need urgent care and treatment for these type of life-threatening illnesses?
CAPT BUCKLEY: So this is Captain Buckley. From medical care, as I said, we work with partnership with the minister of health of each country. And six days is a busy time, but there’s all these processes that cannot always be addressed in six days. That’s why it’s a partnership. We have to identify and work with the minister of health, as part of it is we have attract people that have issues that they may not know about, the minister of health, and we actually work with them to actually fold them back into their health system. The care we’re providing is usually broad-based primary care type (inaudible). We have in the past identified cancers on these type of missions, but again we don’t do the treatment, because that would take months. We would have to then rely back on the minister of health in partnership in order to be able to help provide that care and help them. There is often a SME exchange or medical exchange of knowledge from our staff and specialists on board. And we actually work with the minister of health very well to kind of coordinate their care.
As far as the second question, I’ll turn that over to the commodore.
CAPT DIEBOLD: Okay. I’m going to – this is Captain Diebold. I’ll address the countries that – I believe the question was what countries are you stopping in. Was there another part to your question?
QUESTION: No, that’s it. I just want the list.
CAPT DIEBOLD: Okay. Currently we are – plan to stop in Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Granada, Haiti, Jamaica, Panama, St. Lucia, and St. Kitts and Nevis.
QUESTION: Okay. Thank you.
MODERATOR: Thank you. And we’ll take a question, please, from Michael Persson.
QUESTION: Hi. Good morning. Thank you for doing this. I have two questions. One is just a number: How many people do you expect to be able to treat at one of – at each of those stops that you’re making during those six days?
And secondly, just to come back to the first question about Venezuela, because in the backgrounds for this call, it was said that the mission – a quote – is a result of the humanitarian crisis created by the ongoing political and economic instability in Venezuela. But as I understand now, that is not really a factor because the patients will go through the local ministries of health, so I expect there won’t be many Venezuelans – or Venezuelan refugees coming to the ship. Or just to clarify, could you answer that? Thank you.
CAPT DIEBOLD: Yeah. I’m sorry. This is Captain Diebold. So the part about the – I’m going to answer the part about the Venezuelans. Then I’ll turn it over to Captain Buckley to answer the numbers, right.
QUESTION: Okay. Thanks.
CAPT DIEBOLD: So this mission, again, it’s not because of the Venezuelan crisis, but it is part of an overarching campaign throughout the U.S. Southern Command area of responsibility that is addressing the overall – all our partner nation needs. Now as far as the countries that have a lot of the cross-border migrants of Venezuelan refugees from the – that will be supported, part of the mission will include us helping to reduce the burden that has been caused on their health systems with those – with that influx. But again, it will be up to – it’s up to the partner nation governments of whether or not they want us to treat – it’s who they want us to treat. It’s not – we’re not really going to say we’re going to treat Venezuelans or we’re going to treat whatever country we’re in. It’s up to them to decide, because this is about us helping and build capacity throughout – with all of our partner nations. Does that help answer that part of the question?
QUESTION: Sure, sure. Thank you.
CAPT DIEBOLD: Okay. And I’ll turn it over to Captain Buckley for the numbers.
CAPT BUCKLEY: Sure. As far as the numbers, there’s a number of variables that may play out for a country stop. We’re doing two med sites per location, as well as the surgeries on board the ship. The surgeries will be pre-screened and – with the ministers of health before they come on. And then for the med sites, we hope to start – at least a goal would be about 500 patients per day per site. But really, chasing a number is not the idea. It’s to provide good, quality, safe care and partnership with each other. And our numbers may go up and they may go down because weather gets a vote, things that we have no control over, or our transportation back and forth to the ship. So that’s a ballpark to stop – to start.
For the last mission, for 23 clinical days, we helped over 27,000 people – 27,704. And of that was 599 were surgeries. That’s a ballpark to give you an estimate. But again, weather gets a vote, if storm centers come in or the travel back and forth. And there was an excellent quote – because we get questions all the time – one of my doctors put out last year, and I think – medicine’s a safe place. The other stuff with the political partners, that’s not for us to decide. All I really care about is where it hurts.
QUESTION: Well, thank you.
CAPT BUCKLEY: Thanks. That answer your question okay?
OPERATOR: Thank you. And ladies and gentlemen, if you would like to ask a question, please press *0 so we can gather your name. Once your name has been gathered, all you need to do is press a *1, including for those that have already asked. Thank you.
MODERATOR: Thank you very much, and we’ll take the next call – question, sorry – and I apologize for pronunciation – Oyiza Adaba.
QUESTION: Yes, I’m here. Good morning. Okay. Thank you very much for doing this as a humanitarian mission. My question’s threefold. One, I’d like to know the cost to the U.S. Government on – to embark on such a mission. And secondly, do you see this as a stabilizing factor in some of the places that you go, given explicitly the immigration crisis that is going on right now? Does this help in stabilizing the region so that people don’t have to move out so much? And do you conduct these missions in other parts of the world as well? And lastly, are journalists allowed at any point to accompany the mission so that we can see the insides of what’s going on? Thank you.
CAPT DIEBOLD: All right. Hey, this is Captain Diebold. I’m going to try and get through all – I think I tracked four questions. So the first one was what was the cost to the U.S. Government. What’s important to remember here is is that the overall cost in dollars is really hard to determine or to be measured, because what we are going to get out of this is that our own medical professionals and working side-by-side with our partners, and we learn from them and they learn from us; and then, in addition, the services that we provide for the various citizens of these partner nations.
So with that said, the estimated cost right now is around $34 million, but I would say that the return on investment that both the partner nations and the U.S. Government are going to get from this can really not be measured in those dollars. So that’s the first question.
The second question was about: Does this help as a stabilizing factor across the region? As we go down and we conduct these missions, part of our – part of the mission is for us to meet with our partners and to build a capacity and to strengthen those partnerships, so that it does just exactly do that; it does help stabilize. Is it the only factor that is going to stabilize the region? I would say no, but it is one of the contributing factors that will help in the overall stabilization of the area.
The third question is: Do you conduct this in other parts of the world? The answer to that is yes. The U.S. Navy actually has another hospital ship, the USNS Mercy, that is stationed off of the west coast, and it is involved in Pacific Partnership Station. Is there any others that you know of that are —
CAPT BUCKLEY: There are a number of other smaller type missions that are done in Africa or across the globe not requiring a ship, but more of a global team that will go in and do some work as well. But —
CAPT DIEBOLD: Yeah, and that was going to be my second point, was the fact that not only do we do this on the USNS Comfort, but this is actually a continuing growth on missions that are done throughout South America and Central America and the Caribbean. These medical missions happen very frequently through Southern Partnership Station, through the Continuing Promise deployment, and through also Southern Seas, and also through UNITAS. All of those which contribute to build our partnerships and work together as a team down here.
And then lastly you asked about journalists. Can journalists be embarked? I don’t know if that is a yes or a no. I would have to refer you to our various embassies and onboard media that will be able to get you through that process to get you onboard the ship.
QUESTION: Thank you very much.
MODERATOR: Let me – this is Foreign Press Center. Let me just say if you are interested in press availabilities that will be happening in any particular country, please do reach out to the embassy press office in that country. They will have the latest news available for you.
I think we have time for one more question. Mr. Alandete, if you want to go ahead, please.
QUESTION: Thank you. Thank you for taking my question again. It’s just like a brief question to clarify something you – I mean, as you may imagine, when we publish these to people who are suffering this mass migration from Venezuela and are in Colombia or other countries, and other people that live there, they probably ask what do we need to do. So I mean, the question I want to mention, like what do we tell these people that they should do if they are interested in getting this type of care if they don’t have access to primary care?
CAPT DIEBOLD: So this is Captain Diebold. I’m not certain that I can provide you a good direction on an answer to your question other than, as I had stated earlier, all of the patients that will be seen at the medical sites that are going to be on the shore and then potentially on the ship itself are all vetted through in the various nations’ ministries of health and through the local governments.
CAPT DIEBOLD: How that process happens and how that works, I would have to refer you to each one of those local governments to find out. We will know those patients and who they are once we arrive in those various countries. I just have absolutely no idea how that process takes place.
Does that help?
CAPT BUCKLEY: There is — this is Captain Buckley.
QUESTION: Yeah, yeah.
CAPT BUCKLEY: We do have advance teams that are working both with ministers of health to help identify what the ship brings in capabilities and so that they can pick the right patients for the right kind of care. Obviously, like the question earlier about cancer patients, we would not be able to help. But we want to make sure we have the right – we can use our surgical capabilities which we bring to the table in the proper way. That requires sometimes a little more lead time. So our advance teams are working with each country’s minister of health. How they advertise or the process they go, as the commodore mentioned, is for the local country’s minister of health.
CAPT DIEBOLD: All right.
MODERATOR: All right. And with that, let me please thank our briefers for joining us today and our media colleagues for participating. We wish the Comfort fair winds and a following sea. And among the places that you’ll be able to follow highlights from the voyage will be on the Foreign Press Center social media. We’ll be copying the output that comes from the ship and from SOUTHCOM. The embargo on the call is now lifted, and thank you very much for joining us today.