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USNS Mercy to reach Port of Los Angeles Friday and start helping hospitals expecting coronavirus surge

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)

The USNS Mercy, a Navy hospital ship that should help take the load off Los Angeles area hospitals as they treat coronavirus patients, is expected to arrive at the Port of Los Angeles on Friday and be in service by Saturday at the latest.

The 1,000-bed ship – which was offshore of Camp Pendleton on Wednesday, March 25 – left San Diego on Monday.

The Mercy is staffed by 800 Navy medical personnel and 70 civil service mariners. The teams were quickly assembled from other Navy medical center assignments over the last five days. President Donald Trump made the final call to have the ship head to Los Angeles on Sunday, at the request of California Governor Gavin Newsom.

While the crew prepared the ship for transit, the Navy medical personnel – many who had not worked together before – prepared to make the hospital ready to take patients when the ship arrives in the Port of Los Angeles.

“We have a lot of training to do,” said Navy Capt. John Rotruck, Mercy’s Military Treatment Facility commanding officer. He is licensed as a cardiothoracic anesthesiologist and took over the ship’s command in 2018. “The individuals – nurses, physicians and corpsmen – all had jobs to do before they came to the Mercy. This is a time to do drills and make sure all our processes are effective so we are at our highest capability.”

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Inside the Mercy, the decks and rooms look just like a large hospital, he said. Most of the patient care takes place on the main deck, which will also be the receiving area for new patients. All patients that will be treated aboard will be transfers from Los Angeles County hospitals and will arrive by ground ambulance, Rotruck said.

The ship, which is designed to specialize in trauma cases, will be able to provide a full spectrum of medical care including critical and urgent care for adults. That is expected to help free up space in local hospitals so they can focus on an expected surge of COVID-19 patients. The Mercy has no way of isolating infectious patients.

“We will take patients not affected with COVID-19,” Rotruck said. “We don’t dictate what patients we get.”

There are 1,500 open beds at Los Angeles County’s 84 acute care hospitals, out of 23,000 beds total, Dr. Christina Ghaly, director of L.A. County Health Services, said Wednesday, March 25. That includes 220 available intensive care unit beds out of 2,200.

The four county-run public hospitals, meanwhile, have 500 open beds – 65 of them ICU beds – out of 1,400 total, Ghaly said.

The 44-year-old, 894-feet-long Mercy can travel at 17 knots and has a cruising speed of 12 knots. Conditions at sea are good, said Lt. Andrew Bertucci, a spokesman aboard the Mercy.

Before the Mercy could get underway north, the crew had to stabilize the ship out in open seas with additional water added to its ballast tanks, a process that took a couple of days.

“Everyone is bustling around and morale is high,” Bertucci said. “Everyone is excited to be on a mission to provide support to the Los Angeles area and the American people who need it.”

Personally, for Bertucci, who is from the Torrance area, the experience is something he has looked forward to in his six years in the Navy.

“I’ve been on aircraft carriers, amphibious ships,” he said. “Being on this is a wish-come-true. The mission sets hospital ships do are very unique. We bring relief.”

He also said he’ll be watching for whales as he passes through Orange County and into Los Angeles.

“I know there is a lot of good whale-watching in this area near Catalina,” he said.

The Los Angeles Port Police are working with the Navy and “other allied agencies” to develop security protocols for the Mercy once it arrives, said Phillip Sanfield, the port’s spokesman.

The port police, he added, will play a significant role in the vessel’s security. No other details were currently available, Sanfield said.

Details on the process that will be used to move non-coronavirus patients to the Mercy in an effort to free up more beds in hospitals are still to come, spokeswoman Sarah Ardalani has said.

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© 2020 The Orange County Register