Here's How a Navy Hospital Ship Will Help Fight the Coronavirus Pandemic

USNS Mercy (T-AH 19) to depart Naval Base San Diego
Sailors prepare for Military Sealift Command hospital ship USNS Mercy (T-AH 19) to depart Naval Base San Diego, March 23, 2020. (U.S. Navy photo/David Mora Jr.)

More than 1,000 Navy personnel are gearing up to treat their fellow Americans aboard a floating hospital. Their commander said they've been given no end date for the unique deployment, as experts warn medical facilities face severe overcrowding amid a global pandemic.

The hospital ship Mercy departed San Diego on Monday afternoon. Its destination is just 120 miles up the coast at the port of Los Angeles -- but first it must complete a series of operations, tests and certifications at sea, Capt. Jonathan Olmsted, Mercy's civilian master, said.

The Mercy will arrive in LA within a week, Capt. John Rotruck, the ship's commanding officer, said. Much about what happens next is dependent on how serious the situation gets in LA or other spots along the West Coast.

"We are prepared to stay underway until the need is complete or until it doesn't make sense anymore," Capt. Dan Cobian, the mission commander, said. "... We are prepared to stay as long as necessary in Los Angeles and prepared to move on to whatever port or destination that FEMA directs or is required by higher headquarters."

Related: Why the Navy's Hospital Ship Mercy Is Going to LA Instead of Hard-Hit Washington

Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Pete Gaynor said on Sunday that the ship has been directed to LA because California is projected to need five times more hospital beds than Washington state, even though there are currently more coronavirus cases there than in California.

The medical professionals on the Mercy came from several West Coast naval hospitals and clinics, including those at Camp Pendleton and Twentynine Palms in California and Bremerton and Oak Harbor in Washington.

The Mercy won't treat patients with coronavirus but will instead take overflow patients from hospitals in LA. Rotruck said the ship is equipped to perform surgeries and respond to patients who require intensive care. The ship will not provide care to children or pregnant women, he added.

The crew members weren't individually tested for coronavirus but were asked to complete a questionnaire. If there was any indication that they could have COVID-19, Rotruck said there was follow-on medical testing.

Civilian patients who are treated on the ship will also be screened, he added.

"If we identify someone as COVID-19 positive, our intention would be to transfer their care back off of the ship," Rotruck said. "... We practice infection control every day in our normal hospital operating environment. We're going to do the exact same thing on the Mercy and also apply additional disinfection measures throughout the ship."

The Mercy has an initial stock of coronavirus tests on the ship, the captain added, and will request more through their normal supply chain if needed.

Rear Adm. Timothy Weber, commander of Naval Medical Forces Pacific, said there's not yet an estimate on how much the operation could cost.

As the sometimes fatal virus continues to spread, Weber stressed that it's important for everyone to do their part in practicing social distancing, washing hands and avoid touching their faces.

"Whether you're in a military hospital on shore, at sea or anywhere else, those are critical," he said.

-- Gina Harkins can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @ginaaharkins.

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