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After nearly 7 weeks and 77 patients, USNS Mercy leaves Port of Los Angeles

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)

The USNS Mercy, a 1,000 bed Navy hospital ship, will leave the Port of Los Angeles on Friday, May 15.

The ship was sent to Los Angeles on March 24 from Naval Base San Diego to function as a “relief valve” taking overflow patients from local area hospitals so they could focus on an expected surge of coronavirus patients. In the end, the overflow of patients wasn’t as severe as initial projections worried.

“Our work to protect public health and safety is far from done, but having the Mercy and its highly-trained medical personnel stationed in the most populous region of the state was critical to our ability to respond in the first stages of the pandemic,” Mark Ghilarducci, director of the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, said in a statement. “We thank our colleagues in the U.S. Navy, FEMA and the federal administration for their support in allowing us to use the Mercy.”

Mercy’s crew treated 77 patients for medical needs that ranged from essential medical and surgical treatments to critical care and trauma. The ship did not take patients with the coronavirus.

“Every patient brought aboard created one more available bed in a local hospital,” said Capt. John Rotruck, commanding officer of the Mercy.

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The ship released its last patient on Tuesday, May 5.

About 60 of the ship’s 1,000 crew members – doctors, nurses and corpsmen – are still caring for patients at the Fairview Developmental Center in Costa Mesa and helping out in four other skilled nursing facilities in Orange County.

The Fairview campus – prepared by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and opened April 20 by order of the governor – is being used to isolate and treat patients with COVID-19, the disease that stems from the virus. The patients don’t need the acute care of a hospital.

Navy Chief Dominique Navarro is among the group staying behind. She helps with oversight.

“Healthcare workers for the military are always asked to stay in the fight,” she said. “I knew we would have the supplies and the support we needed.”

Navarro, who has served in the Navy for 11 years, was among a group of 21 who arrived at the Fairview campus last week. About 40 of the team members stay at Fairview to treat the patients – there have been a total of 16 – and the other 20 go out to other facilities nearby that are in need of help.

There, the corpsmen and nurses are helping train the facilities’ caregivers in proper use of protection equipment, such as masks. They also set up protocols for monitoring patients for possible telltale signs of COVID-19.

“When my sailors come back, they really own the process and you can tell they’re excited to help,” she said. “I’m proud of every sailor and what we’ve been able to do.”

As Navarro looks back at the mission, she said she feels pride.

“In the Navy, I’ve always felt that I’ve been part of something bigger,” she said. “It’s what it means to be a corpsman. My family was reaching out to me about how proud they were that I was helping the community. It has just been a proud moment overall.”

In April, during the Mercy’s time in Los Angeles, nine of the crew aboard tested positive for the coronavirus and went to military hospitals for care. Another 120 others who were exposed to those sailors also had to leave the ship and self-monitor for symptoms.

To avoid a disastrous spread of the virus, the ship’s commanding officer, Capt. John Rotruck ordered the ship sanitized, extra precautions among the crew and many were sent to stay at nearby hotels when they weren’t on shift.

Since the last patient was discharged, the crew has been cleaning the ship and preparing to sail back to Naval Base San Diego where it is normally stays until it is sent out again.

The ship is expected to arrive at the Navy base on Friday. The crew will disembark and head back to their respective commands at military hospitals such as Balboa Naval Hospital. Reservists called aboard will return to their homes.

USNS Comfort — a sister ship to the Mercy — recently departed New York City. It treated 182 patients.

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© 2020 The Orange County Register