‘Navy medicine trains for this sort of mission’

The U.S. Navy Ship Mercy arrived at the Port of Los Angeles on Friday morning, just days after it was deployed to assist in the fight against the deadly coronavirus, or COVID-19, pandemic.

The Mercy, which normally handles combat casualty care, transformed into a civilian hospital with 1,000 beds to assist the overwhelmed hospital systems in the Los Angeles area. Acting as a referral hospital, the ship will only treat non-COVID-19 patients, and will include a wide range of care and surgical services, except obstetrics and pediatrics.

“This is definitely a unique opportunity for me. I’ve never really seen anything like it, particularly the speed with which everyone came together to move forward with this mission,” Commanding officer Captain John Rotruck told Yahoo Finance on Thursday.

“Navy medicine trains for the sort of mission,” he added. “We train to be agile, we train to be resilient, and do anything that the country asks of us.”

With close to 1,000 navy sailors on board, two-thirds are medical personnel and the other third are support staff — including culinary and IT specialists as well as logisticians.

‘A little more bureacracy’

In an interview with Yahoo Finance Thursday, Rotruck said the ship is adequately stocked with necessary supplies, which are sourced from many of the same suppliers as commercial hospitals.

“In reality, in large part, virtually everything that we order comes through the same supply chain system that any civilian hospital would order through. So there’s a little more bureaucracy attached to it, but ultimately the suppliers are the same,” he said.

But given the large supply shortage across all hospitals, Rotruck said there are contingency plans if necessary.

“The Department of Defense does have some stockpile so if we have a requirement that the civilian supply chain can’t satisfy, we do have some access to some personal protective equipment. If we need to use that, we certainly will. But otherwise we prefer to just use the same supply chain that all these civilian hospitals are using.”

Sailors stand by to participate in sea and anchor detail before USNS Mercy (T-AH 19) departs Naval Base San Diego, March 23. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Tim Heaps)

The ship will be fully operational starting Saturday — but it isn’t a curbside care facility for just any passerby.

“When we talk about openness to the general public, we just want to be clear that we’re not actually taking patients who might arrive at the pier. We’re only taking patients by interhospital transfer and others that are already admitted to local hospitals. We’re looking to FEMA and the local and state officials as far as the demand signal and we’re ready to assist them in any way that we can and we will support them in any way that we can.”

Every person on the ship was screened — but not tested — for the novel coronavirus before coming on board. None of the staff will be allowed to leave the ship or the immediate area around the pier, according to Rotruck.

“We’re being very careful here on the ship to clean frequently and encourage people to use social distancing to the maximum degree possible, cleaning highly used surfaces…We have hand sanitizer spread throughout, we’re encouraging people to wash their hands, we have a very heavy push to make sure that we’re maintaining internal cleanliness so that we minimize the chance of anyone getting the virus,” he said.

Still, with the pervasiveness of COVID-19 and ship’s tight quarters, Rotruck said the crew would get any patients who tested positive or were suspected of having the virus to get off the ship as quickly as possible.

“Currently our mission is to take only non COVID patients. Obviously if directed by a higher authority, we will do as requested,” he said.

As U.S.N.S. Mercy opens its doors to patients, its sister ship U.S.N.S. will be leaving the Norfolk Naval Station in Virginia for New York CIty to assist in a similar capacity.

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