In anticipating that the COVID-19 epidemic will soon overwhelm Los Angeles-area hospitals, the Naval Base San Diego hospital ship Mercy is getting underway Monday afternoon to take the pressure off.

The ship will have more than 1,100 personnel on board, according to the commanding officer of the ship’s medical treatment center, and should arrive at the Port of Los Angeles later this week, ready to go operational the following day.

“Essentially every patient transfer will be an inter-hospital transfer,” Capt. John Rotruck told reporters Monday. “We’re prepared to offer pretty broad range of critical care and other care.”

Officials reiterated that the Mercy, which has 1,000 beds and a dozen operating rooms but is not set up to follow the kinds of isolation protocol needed to prevent the spread of the highly contagious virus, will be taking in patients from local medical centers in order to free up beds and equipment for COVID-19 patients.

Military hospital ships are designed to take patients from with traumatic combat injuries, but can handle a wide range of medical needs. Mercy will not be delivering babies or taking any pediatric patients, however, Rotruck said.

In order to prevent coronavirus from coming onto the ship, officials said, all personnel and patients will be screened for fevers, symptoms and any contact with COVID-19 patients.

Ship personnel will also take additional disinfection measures, per Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance, while transferring off the ship anyone who does become infected and tracing their contact with anyone else on the ship.

On the East Coast, the hospital ship Comfort is cutting short its maintenance availability to head up to New York in the coming weeks. The ships are one part of the Defense Department’s assistance to civilian public health agencies.

Elsewhere, Defense Secretary Esper said Monday, five active duty medical units are on alert to man field hospitals in New York and Seattle. Those ad hoc facilities would act much like the hospital ships, freeing up brick-and-mortar medical centers to focus on COVID-19 patients.

“And as necessary we will continue to alert units to prepare to deploy and them deploy them as appropriate,” Esper said.

In his opinion, he said, military field hospitals will be temporary solution for cities who are planning to build new hospitals or convert gymnasiums, dormitories and other facilities into more space for hospital beds.

“I see us playing this role where we’re the gap-filler for a period of weeks, with our capabilities,” Esper said. “Once the capacity is met through these other mechanisms ... we can then pull out and go to the next site and cover, again, that gap for the next city or locality that is ramping up.”

Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members.

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