With staffing of the Navy's two hospital ships underway Thursday, the USNS Mercy should be ready to leave port In San Diego next week for an as-yet-unnamed site on the West Coast to aid local efforts against the novel coronavirus, Defense Department health officials said.
Doctors, nurses and crew were also summoned to report to the USNS Comfort, based in Norfolk, Virginia, but there was no immediate estimate on when the ship would be deployed to New York harbor, the officials added.
After a six-month deployment to the Caribbean and South America, the Comfort is undergoing maintenance in Norfolk and her departure might be weeks away, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said at a news conference Wednesday.
In a teleconference to the Pentagon, Army Lt. Gen. Ronald Place, director of the Defense Health Agency, and Navy Surgeon General Rear Adm. Bruce Gillingham both stressed that the two hospital ships would not be treating patients with the coronavirus, formally known as COVID-19.
Instead, the ships will take on patients with other illnesses or injuries, although details on how they will be transported back and forth from the ships, who would be responsible for doing so and which hospitals the patients would come from had yet to be worked out, they said.
However, Gillingham said, "We will engage with local health officials" on the procedures for transferring patients, adding "we do envision it will be patients who are already hospitalized or in the emergency room."
The ships' mission will be "to assist overwhelmed communities," Gillingham said, and "take some of the burden off of local hospitals" to allow them to focus more directly on combating COVID-19.
Staffing of the two ships is underway "as we speak," he said, and could be adjusted to fit local needs.
Both Gillingham and Place said they knew little of President Donald Trump's announcement earlier at a White House briefing that the drugs chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine had shown promise in clinical trials for treatment of coronavirus and could be available "almost immediately."
The drugs are already used as antimalarials. "So we know that if things don't go as planned, it's not going to kill anybody," Trump said.
However, FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn, who joined Trump at the briefing, indicated that more testing would be necessary before the drugs could be approved for coronavirus treatment.
"Let me make one thing clear -- the FDA's responsibility to the American people is to ensure that products are safe and effective," he said.
At the Pentagon teleconference, Place, who oversees the Defense Health Agency, which has 51 hospitals and more than 400 clinics worldwide, also said that several testing phases would likely be necessary before the drugs would be approved for treatment of coronavirus.
"If indeed we are doing this," he said, "my suspicion is that we'll do it like everything else -- with great care."
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.
Read more: The Military's Response to COVID-19