Elective surgery and other services at the Bethesda Naval Hospital are being cut back because hundreds of staff members were transferred to the hospital ship U.S.N.S. Comfort, which is bound for the Middle East.

The drain means "we will have to reduce the number of elective procedures, including the number of surgeries," said Lt. Cmdr. William Clyde, public affairs officer for the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda.

Already about 400 doctors, nurses, technicians, clerks and others have gone to Norfolk to join the giant 1,000-bed hospital ship before it leaves, Clyde said yesterday. More staff members are likely to go, he said, and the total could reach 1,000.

Officials said there is no way of knowing how long the Comfort will be stationed in the tense Middle East.

The Comfort and a second Navy hospital ship, the Mercy, which was in Oakland, Calif., were mobilized last week to provide medical support as U.S. troops poured into Saudi Arabia for a possible confrontation with Iraq.

Officials would not say where the floating hospitals will be positioned but indicated casualties could be taken to the ships by helicopter.

Clyde said the 350-bed Bethesda Naval Hospital normally is staffed by about 2,000 military personnel and 1,200 to 1,300 civilians.

Managers are deciding which parts of the hospital should be cut back and whether to bring in staff from other medical facilities.

"Some parts of the hospital may be hit harder than others," he said, but he said it was too early to specify where cutbacks will be felt the most.

"We are reviewing our capability," he said.

Meanwhile, Clyde said, some civilian workers and contract employees have volunteered to work overtime to help cover jobs done by Naval staff transferred to the Comfort.

Also, several Navy reservists are at the hospital for regular summer training, "and that has been a help," he said.

Morale at the Bethesda facility is high, Clyde said. "It's an all-hands effort," he said. "There is a tremendous sense of team spirit and camaraderie."