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USNS Mercy staff staying offship to stop spread of coronavirus

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

When Capt. John Rotruck, commanding officer of the USNS Mercy, saw the first cases of the coronavirus spreading among some of his Navy medical personnel, he took action to contain it.

The 1,000-bed hospital ship is currently docked at the Port of Los Angeles taking patients who need care for illnesses other than COVID-19 so area hospital have the room to focus on the pandemic.

But despite precautions, the ship’s first sailor with a confirmed case of COVID-19 was reported on April 8. Since then, eight others from the medical team have tested positive.

To stop any further advance, Rotruck has moved almost all of the hospital personnel off the ship to create more social distancing among his crew. Only he, other senior leaders and personnel required for maintenance remain living on the ship.

“Most are treating the ship like a ‘brick and mortar’ hospital,” he said. They are staying at nearby hotels and report to work each day for their 12-hour shifts.

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In a recent outbreak aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt – a Navy aircraft carrier operating near Guam – 840 sailors living in the similar close quarters as the Mercy have now tested positive for COVID-19. One Roosevelt sailor, Chief Petty Officer Charles Robert Thacker Jr., 41, died April 13 from the virus.

“Anyone is alarmed about what’s happening there,” Rotruck said.

Navy personnel who leave the ship wear masks while they are in transit to the nearby hotels where they stay in separate rooms, he said. All of the buses used to transport the crew are thoroughly cleaned and disinfected after each trip.

If crew members leave their hotel to pick up food, they are required to wear N95 masks.

“There is not just a bubble around the ship,” Rotruck said. “We are maintaining our bubble as much as we can.”

The crew members who tested positive were removed from the ship and are in isolation at a medical facility. Others who were within six feet for at least 10 minutes of them were also been taken to land and into 14 days of quarantine.

In all, 130 members of the medical team were removed from the ship at one point for possible exposure. Almost 100 have finished quarantine and returned to the Mercy.

“We’re glad to have them back,” Rotruck said.

Rotruck said he and his crew are doing their best to keep the ship operating coronavirus-free.

In addition to practicing Centers for Disease Control guidelines, the crew is also using a bleach solution to wipe down surfaces multiple times throughout the day, they are wearing face coverings and are spreading out during meal times.

“We’ve opened a section on our flight decks,” he said. “We’ve also closed our gyms and barbershops.”

So far, 65 patients from the community ranging in age from 20 to 90 have been treated aboard the ship. The medical crew has dealt with traumas, removed inflamed gallbladders, done amputation revisions, cared for bone infections and performed some plastic surgery.

The ship, which is configured very similar to a typical hospital, includes intensive care units, standard hospital wards, 12 operating rooms, post-operative rooms, radiology, a pharmacy and a place to process sterile instruments. The steel floors and beds that tied down for when the ship is at sea are the noticeable differences.

For Rotruck, the mission thus far has been successful.

“The team has been executing flawlessly and we’ve been able to move patients,” he said.

The crew has also been sent into the community to help where needed.

On Monday, two doctors, 16 nurses and 22 corpsmen went to staff the Fairview Developmental Center in Costa Mesa, which is being used for COVID patients who do not require acute care in a hospital.

While the surge that it was feared could overwhelm Los Angeles-area hospitals might not yet be what initial forecast models predicted, Rotruck said he and his team were ready to care for at least 500 patients. The deployment has helped the Navy crew, most of whom came from the Naval Medical Center in San Diego, keep ready for their next mission.

“We are an agile and responsive force,” Rotruck said. “Five days is what we trained for to get ready. People worked long hours to achieve that goal. The team pulled together and overcame challenges. I don’t think an ordinary group can pull that off.”

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© 2020 The Orange County Register