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Pentagon readies San Diego hospital ship and tent hospitals to help with coronavirus

U.S. Naval Hospital Ship Mercy steams beneath the Coronado Bridge shortly after setting sail from the US Naval Base in San Diego, Calif. (Don Bartletti/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

A Navy hospital ship based in San Diego will be ready to sail within days to assist civilian hospitals, probably on the West Coast, in case they become overwhelmed with coronavirus patients, Pentagon officials said.

No decision has been made about where to send the Mercy, a 1,000-bed hospital ship, Pentagon press secretary Jonathan Hoffman told reporters Wednesday. It would probably be ordered to Seattle or another West Coast port to care for non-coronavirus patients, freeing up civilian hospital beds for victims of the infectious disease.

“When it is prepared to sail, we’ll make a determination about where,” Hoffman said. “This is a fast-evolving situation. We don’t know where we’re going to be in a week or two weeks.”

President Donald Trump and Defense Secretary Mark Esper described the plans Wednesday at the White House. The Pentagon has asked state officials to seek assistance if the virus strains their medical systems. But it cautioned that the military has limited capabilities to respond to a pandemic; its field hospitals aren’t equipped to deal with infectious diseases.

Decisions about where to send military medical teams would depend on where the virus is worst.

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“What we ask for is that the communities are as specific as possible to what they really need … so we can tailor what we send forward,” Hoffman said.

Another Navy hospital ship, the Comfort, is likely to be sent to New York City. But the vessel is in port in Norfolk, Va., for repairs and will not be ready to get underway until mid-April, officials said.

The Pentagon has also placed field hospital units on alert. The units can be moved by air and set up in tents within days to supplement civilian facilities overwhelmed by patients, said Brig. Gen. Paul Friedrichs, the senior medical officer on the Pentagon’s Joint Staff.

The Army, Navy and Air Force can deploy medical teams of varying sizes, but they are mostly surgical teams designed to treat combat casualties, not infectious patients, officials said. The Pentagon said it was prepared to mobilize enough teams to provide 1,000 beds.

“We put a number of different types on alert, so we at least have some units ready to go out the door,” Friedrichs said.

Officials declined to say how many medical personnel they have available. The initial Pentagon response would be drawn from active-duty military doctors and health care personnel.

Calling up reservists, who are a large part of the military’s medical personnel, would take health workers away from civilian hospitals, which the Pentagon is trying to avoid.

The military is also assisting the Department of Health and Human Services in moving supplies, Hoffman said.

The Air Force on Tuesday picked up 500,000 swabs used for coronavirus tests in Italy and delivered them by cargo plane to Memphis, Tenn. From there, FedEx delivered the swabs to hospitals and medical facilities around the country for coronavirus tests, Hoffman said.

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© 2020 Los Angeles Times

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.