LA County’s Hahn requests return of USNS Mercy to help address coronavirus surge

The hospital ship USNS Mercy. (Nelvin C. Cepeda/TNS)

A Los Angeles County supervisor is calling on Gov. Gavin Newsom to push on federal authorities to bring back the USNS Mercy medical ship and its crew as the region prepares for the anticipated coronavirus post-holiday “surge upon a surge.”

In a letter to Newsom on Wednesday, Dec. 30, Supervisor Janice Hahn sought the return of the Mercy and its accompanying medical staff to the Port of Los Angeles.

The goal would be to bolster staffing and space, which are spread thin in the county as the number of new cases each day has climbed over 13,000 and as ICU space dwindles.

The Mercy — a hospital ship that moored at the port early on in the pandemic, but returned to its home port in San Diego after more than seven weeks — could serve urgent-care needs of non-COVID patients, officials said, adding that its staff could supplement staffers at local hospitals.

“Emergency departments throughout LA County are overwhelmed and cannot take in all patients in need of urgent care,” Hahn wrote. “The USNS Mercy can add more emergency care capacity for patients not suffering from COVID-19 related health complications. This will in turn alleviate the burden on hospitals, so they can focus on severely ill COVID-19 patients.”

Officials say the worst of the pandemic is yet to come in January, the result of record numbers of travelers and holiday gathering that fueled the spread of the virus.

Public health officials expect more of it in the weeks after Christmas and New Year’s Day.

Up to now, local public health officials have pushed back on the idea as hospitals have worked to increase their own surge capacity. In the spring, it was difficult to identify patients to transfer to the ship for a surge that hand’t happened, said Dr. Christina Ghaly at a Wednesday briefing.

“We are in a different situation today,” she said, adding that hospitals across the county are in “desperate need of staff.”

Ghaly was open to the idea of the ship setting sail for L.A. but noted that the county would accept any kind of federal or state help bolstering local staffs, whether it came from the ship’s crew on dry land or from contract registries of healthcare workers.

A Naval Medical Forces Pacific spokeswoman said they have not been notified of any request as of Wednesday afternoon and the Mercy is not currently at port in San Diego.

The last time the Mercy was requested and deployed, its staff was assembled from reservists and active duty service members who were called into San Diego from throughout the nation. It took five days.

Another option, the spokeswoman said, could be field teams that are assembled and sent to an area in need, but only if requested.

In May, when the Mercy left San Pedro after seven weeks and treating only 77 patients, a field team stayed behind and helped with care at the Fairview Development Center in Costa Mesa.

Hahn’s request was part of a broader request to the state supporting SEIU 721’s request for more healthcare workers in Los Angeles County hospitals, in response to the outbreak.

The goal would be for Army National Guard medical personnel, specifically additional registered nurses, licensed vocational nurses, and respiratory care practitioners, to be sent to Los Angeles County hospitals, Hahn’s office said.


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