Navy sends hospital ship to Los Angeles to lighten the load for doctors swamped by COVID-19

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USNS Mercy

Military Sealift Command hospital ship USNS Mercy (T-AH 19) returns to its home port of San Diego after completing Pacific Partnership 2016, Sept. 30, 2016.

The Navy is sending one of its hospital ships, the USNS Mercy, from San Diego to Los Angeles to help lighten the load on local doctors by treating patients who are not suffering with the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), the Navy said in a press conference on Monday.

The Mercy, an 894-foot-long converted oil tanker, will have 1,128 medical professionals, 1,000 beds and nine fully-staffed operating rooms to treat patients for a wide range of medical and surgical services, said Capt. John Rotruck, commanding officer of the San Diego-based Mercy.

Though the typical mission of the Mercy is to provide combat casualty care, the doctors, nurses pharmacists, corpsmen and other care providers on board “are agile, responsive and ready to serve the needs of our nation,” Rotruck said.

The Mercy is due to leave San Diego at 5 p.m. EST, and will arrive in Los Angeles within the week, Navy officials said. The ship will undergo operational tests when underway, which will also give the medical crew time to train as a team, Rotruck said.

The announcement comes as the U.S. death toll from the virus approaches 500 — doubling every three days — and the number of cases nears nationwide 40,000, according to The New York Times.

Meanwhile, the number of U.S. service members who tested positive for coronavirus nearly doubled from 67 on Friday to 133 as of Monday, defense officials said.

With health care professionals across the country straining to treat the growing number of COVID-19 patients, USNS Mercy could lift the burden of local hospitals so they can focus on their response to the disease, said Rear Adm. Tim Weber, director of the medical service corps for Naval Medical Forces Pacific.

USNS Mercy

Sailors stand in formation during an all hands call aboard Military Sealift Command hospital ship USNS Mercy (T-AH 19)

The ship will dock at the Port of Los Angeles, Rotruck said, and patients will be transferred aboard from local hospitals. According to the Navy, the Mercy provides digital radiological services, a medical laboratory, a pharmacy, an optometry lab, a blood bank, a CAT-scan and two oxygen producing plants.

Everyone coming aboard the ship, including patients and medical professionals, will be screened for COVID-19, Rotruck said. However, providers will only be tested for the virus if they exhibit symptoms or are pulled aside through the screening process. 

If patients are diagnosed while aboard, they will be sent off the ship, he said. Mercy staff will be following CDC guidance on disinfection throughout the mission, which could go on indefinitely until the crisis ends or the Mercy receives other orders, officials said.

The 1,128 medical care providers are mostly active-duty service members, though there are also 58 reservists who volunteered for the assignment, Weber said.

 The active duty providers come from medical facilities across the West Coast, such as in San Diego, Camp Pendleton, 29 Palms, Naval Station Bremerton, Naval Health Clinic Oak Harbor.

“We are truly honored to answer the nation’s call to protect the health of the American people,” Rotruck said.