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Hospital ship Mercy leaves San Diego to assist in Los Angeles COVID-19 response

The hospital ship USNS Mercy with its staff of 800 Navy medical personnel and support staff, along with more than 70 civil service mariners, departed Naval Base San Diego as she makes her way out of San Diego Bay on Monday, March 23, 2020. The Mercy will serve as a referral hospital for non COVID-19 patients. (Nelvin C. Cepeda/San Diego Union-Tribune/TNS)

More than 800 Navy medical staffers are on their way to the Port of Los Angeles on board the hospital ship Mercy as part of the federal government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Mercy, in addition to its roughly 800 medical staff, has 1,000 hospital beds and 12 operating rooms. The ship won’t treat COVID-19 patients, officials say. Instead, the ship will take on other patients from Southern California hospitals to free up space in those facilities so they can better handle coronavirus patients.

Navy leaders would not say when the Mercy is due to arrive in Los Angeles, but did say at a news conference at Naval Base San Diego Monday the ship expects to begin treating patients almost immediately upon its arrival.

“We anticipate beginning to see patients the day after we arrive in Los Angeles,” said Navy Capt. John Rotruck, the commanding officer of the medical treatment faculty aboard the Mercy. “We expect to see a broad range of medical and surgical patients.”

Although the ship is staffed with naval medical personnel, they will be working under federal guidance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and local health authorities, said Capt. Dan Cobian, the commander of Destroyer Squadron 21.

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“Our role is really to work underneath the umbrella of FEMA and the state and local health authorities,” Cobian said. “We intend to be ready to receive patients the day after we arrive.”

Rear Adm. Tim Weber, the commander of Naval Medical Forces Pacific, said the crew of the Mercy are serving a “higher calling.”

“The men and women of the Mercy, as well as all DOD staff, serve a higher calling to protect and defend this country,” Weber said. “With COVID-19, Navy Medicine, as in any time our country calls, is delivering medical power to assist our communities in time of need.”

President Donald Trump on Sunday announced the ship is bound for Los Angeles, though early reports listed the destination as Seattle. Both areas have been hit hard by the spreading coronavirus.

On Sunday, Peter Gaynor, the FEMA administrator, said Los Angeles has a greater need than Seattle, even though there are more cases now in Washington state.

“The projected need for beds in California is five times more than that of Washington,” he said.

Naval Medical Forces Pacific, based in San Diego, has been in the thick of the coronavirus response as several local sailors and Marines have tested positive for the virus. Tests for local service members are performed at the Naval Health Research Center at Naval Base Point Loma, according to Regena Kowitz, a Navy spokeswoman.

As of March 17 — the latest numbers available Monday — the Navy had tested 502 sailors and Marines for COVID-19. Since that date, the number of positive cases in the military community have doubled.

Between the two naval hospitals in the region — Naval Medical Center San Diego, commonly referred to as “Balboa,” and Naval Hospital Camp Pendleton — there are 32 ICU beds, with six at Camp Pendleton and 26 at Balboa, Kowitz said.

There are 133 ventilators across the Naval Medical Forces Pacific region, she said.

On Sunday, Naval Medical Center San Diego reported its first COVID-19 positive cases. Four hospital staffers — including three sailors — tested positive for the virus, the hospital announced in a statement.

The naval hospitals are also experiencing the same supply chain strain in regard to personal protective equipment, or PPE, for its medical staff, Kowitz said.

“Across the region, our normal stock on hand is adequate for our hospitals’ day-to-day missions, but like all hospitals dealing with COVID-19 cases, it is being used at an accelerated rate,” Kowitz said in an email. “Our facilities across the region have tapped into our emergency management stock from our warehouses for replenishment and more are on their way from the national stockpile.”

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© 2020 The San Diego Union-Tribune

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.