US Navy hospital ship departs for Los Angeles amid coronavirus pandemic

KMBZ News Staff
March 23, 2020 - 10:41 am

Zach Kreitzer/U.S. Navy, FILE

(WASHINGTON) -- A U.S. Navy hospital ship was heading to Los Angeles on Monday, with the intention of helping to alleviate the strain on the city's hospital system due to the influx of patients infected by the novel coronavirus.

The USNS Mercy -- one of the Navy's two 1,000-bed hospital ships -- was originally expected to go to the Seattle region, but last week California Gov. Gavin Newsom sent a letter to President Donald Trump requesting that the Mercy be docked in Los Angeles instead. At a White House press conference on Sunday evening, the president confirmed the Mercy would be located off the coast of Los Angeles.

The Mercy's sister ship, the USNS Comfort, will head to New York Harbor from its homeport of Norfolk, Virginia, in April -- with the later departure date due to scheduled maintenance, officials said. Meanwhile, on Sunday, Trump announced additional resources for Washington state, including four small federal medical stations, with 250 beds and three large federal medical stations with 750 beds.

According to data from Los Angeles County Public Health, the county now has more than 400 confirmed cases of COVID-19. The county's more than 10 million residents are being told to shelter at home.

"The ship will serve as a referral hospital for non-COVID-19 patients currently admitted to shore-based hospitals, and will provide a full spectrum of medical care to include critical and urgent care for adults," according to the Navy's Third Fleet in a statement about the Mercy on Sunday. "This will allow local health professionals to focus on treating COVID-19 patients and for shore-based hospitals to use their Intensive Care Units and ventilators for those patients."

The Mercy was sailing from San Diego on Monday with more than 800 Navy medical personnel and support staff, as well as 70 "civil service mariners" who operate the ship and assist with cargo and repairs, among other ship-related tasks.

In order to prevent the spread of the virus on the Mercy, all personnel, including medical staff and future patients, would be screened for coronavirus symptoms prior to boarding, Navy Surgeon General, Rear Adm. Bruce Gillingham told reporters last week.

The nearly 900-foot Mercy is unique, with 1,000 hospital beds including 80 intensive care beds. The ship is equipped with 11 general purpose operating suites and has the ability to carry 5,000 units of blood.

Of the two Navy hospital ships, the Comfort most recently deployed on a five-month humanitarian mission to South America in order to lessen the burden on health systems overwhelmed by Venezuelan refugees.

It marked the Comfort's seventh deployment to the region since 2007, according to the Navy.

But these ships have also served in war times. In 1990, the Mercy supported Operation Desert Shield, serving in the Arabian Gulf for six months and treating nearly 700 patients.

"We're honored to serve," Gillingham said last week of the Mercy's upcoming deployment.

"And although this is not our traditional medical mission, which typically involves combat casualty care, I believe these efforts demonstrate our agility and responsiveness to do what the country asks, wherever and whenever we're needed," he continued.

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