U.S. Navy Hospital Ships Soon to Deploy on Coronavirus Support Missions

The USNS Mercy, a Navy hospital ship is seen docked at Naval Base San Diego Wednesday, March 18, 2020, in San Diego. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Tuesday he has asked the Navy to prepare its two hospital ships — the USNS Mercy and the USNS Comfort in New York …
Gregory Bull/AP Photo

The Navy is deploying two massive hospital ships to treat non-coronavirus patients to help alleviate a potential strain on civilian hospitals located near coastal areas, likely in New York and Washington state.

The USNS Comfort, which is home-ported in Norfolk, Virginia, and was undergoing maintenance, will be ready to deploy in early April. The USNS Mercy, home-ported in San Diego, California, will be ready to deploy in days, Navy officials said.

“Both ships are currently working to complete scheduled maintenance cycles and identify necessary medical staffing to deploy as soon as possible,” said Thomas Van Leunen, spokesman for Military Sealift Command, the command in charge of the ships when they are not activated.

The ships will likely dock in one place, near coastal areas that could be overwhelmed with coronavirus-related hospitalizations and need extra capacity.

Since the ships are primarily designed to treat trauma cases, they will not take patients with the novel coronavirus but will treat other patients who are either currently hospitalized or those who will need hospitalization in the future.

“The Comfort and Mercy will not deploy to treat COVID patients but will be made available to assist with treatment of other patients in coastal locations where local health professionals are necessarily focused on a large number of COVID cases,” Van Leunen added.

The ships, which are unarmed, have 1,000 hospital beds. That includes:

  • 50 casualty receiving/emergency room stations
  • 12 operating rooms
  • 4 X-ray rooms/CT scan units
  • 20 post-anesthesia care unit beds
  • 80 intensive care beds
  • 400 intermediate care beds
  • 500 minimal care beds

They also have:

  • 2 dental operating rooms
  • 4 dental chairs

They can also carry 3,000 units of frozen blood and 2,000 units of fresh blood.

On full operating status, the ships can hold up to 1,215 medical staff and 67 civilian crew members.

They are equipped with the following surgical capabilities: invasive angiography/CT Scan, interventional radiography, anesthesiology, ear/nose/throat, maxillofacial, obstetrics and gynecology, orthopedic, urology, cardio-thoracic, general surgery, neurosurgery, ophthalmology, and plastic/reconstructive. Non-surgical capabilities include: angiography, dental, family medicine, internal medicine, psychiatry, dialysis, dermatology, intensive care, and neurology.

They are typically used to support military operations and treat combat casualties, as well as for humanitarian and disaster relief missions abroad and at home. The Comfort also aided in relief operations after 9/11.

The Navy has already begun calling up medical personnel to staff the ships for the coronavirus-response mission. For the Comfort, much of its medical crew is expected to come from Naval Medical Center Portsmouth.

Navy officials say that so far, no U.S. sailor on a ship has tested positive for coronavirus, and they have policies in place to screen patients and crew coming on board to prevent the spread of coronavirus onto the ships.

“We have a protocol not only for any patient that would come aboard but for all of the crew. So before the critical core reported today, they were all screened before they crossed the bow of the ship,” he said.

“The remainder of the crew as they come aboard will also be similarly screened. And then we’ll be very careful in the development of our concept of operations of how to care for community patients. Screening will be an essential part of that guidance,” he said.


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