A total of seven sailors aboard the hospital ship USNS Mercy have contracted COVID-19 and been removed from the ship as the remaining crew scrambles to stifle a full-blown outbreak.
Navy officials would not specify where the sailors have been moved, but confirmed the crew members in close proximity to the infected sailors have since tested negative.
Treatment of patients onboard Mercy, which arrived in Los Angeles on March 27, will continue as planned, officials said.
The surge in confirmed cases, meanwhile, has increased concern among sailors and family members who were already skeptical about the crew’s screening process prior to embarking on Mercy or Comfort, the second of the Navy’s two mobilized hospital ships which is currently treating patients in the New York City harbor.
Navy officials previously confirmed the screening process, one instituted in accordance to CDC guidance, consists only of a temperature check and “a series of questions addressing [the] member’s recent health and contact history.”
“We know that the traditional symptoms don’t show themselves the same way in the young, healthy population as they do in the older and medically fragile,” one medical professional and spouse of a Comfort sailor told Navy Times on the condition of anonymity.
“We also know how dangerous of a breeding ground a ship can be for a highly contagious pathogen. I work for our local hospital and am caring for patients everyday. I have no idea what I’ve been in contact with and have no idea what I’ve shared with my husband, and therefore, have no idea what he might have carried onto that ship.”
One crew member assigned to Mercy, who requested anonymity, voiced similar concerns after boarding the 1,000-person ship in the San Diego harbor, adding that some staff embarked without even having their temperatures examined.
“On March 23 I reported to the ship thinking there was going to be an extensive screening and temperature check,” the sailor said. “But no — all I was asked was if I was in contact with any confirmed positive cases, to which I replied no. Then they let me on my way.”
Cmdr. John Fage, spokesman for U.S. 3rd Fleet, told Navy Times that "the ship is following protocols and taking every precaution to ensure the health and safety of all crew members and patients on board” in the wake of seven confirmed cases.
Fage added that despite the outbreak, the cases will not hinder Mercy’s ability to alleviate the burden on local hospitals by treating non-coronavirus patients.
But that mission, the Mercy sailor told Navy Times, is one teetering on the edge of a knife due to the crew’s concern about conditions onboard.
“Yes we are proud to protect and serve our country, especially during this trying time, but we are doing it blindly with no defense of our own.”
The first active-duty service member to succumb to COVID-19 was a sailor who died Monday in Guam following a massive outbreak onboard the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt. The deceased was initially taken to an intensive care unit on the morning of April 9 after being found unresponsive by other quarantined sailors.
Approximately 85 percent of Roosevelt’s crew has been evacuated from the carrier in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak that sidelined the ship in Guam nearly three weeks ago, Navy officials said.
As of Tuesday, 589 Roosevelt crew members have tested positive and moved into quarantine.
Jon Simkins is a writer and editor for Military Times, and a USMC veteran.