The hospital ship Mercy departed Los Angeles Friday after nearly a month and a half of assisting the area’s COVID-19 response, Navy officials announced.
The 1,000-person ship, which is homeported at Naval Station San Diego, pulled into the Port of Los Angeles on March 27 with the mission of treating non-COVID-19 patients in an effort to alleviate the burden on the region’s facilities beset by coronavirus cases.
“We came to Los Angeles to be the relief valve for local hospitals in the fight against COVID-19,” Capt. John Rotruck, commanding officer of Mercy’s Medical Treatment Facility, said in a release.
“I am very impressed with how well the team came together on this rapid response mission, completing a wide-range of high-quality medical procedures from orthopedic surgeries to interventional radiology. Sailors from across the country answered the call, forming a unified team focused on our mission to treat patients from Los Angeles. I couldn’t be more proud.”
While harbored in L.A., Mercy staff performed everything from plastic surgeries to radiology and skin grafting, Navy officials said.
Still, the hospital ship’s stay was not without incident.
In mid-April the Navy confirmed that a total of seven sailors aboard Mercy contracted COVID-19 and had been removed from the ship.
The surge of coronavirus cases increased concern among sailors who were already skeptical about the crew’s screening process prior to embarking.
One crew member assigned to Mercy, who requested anonymity, told Navy Times last month 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 in the wake of the outbreak that the ship was “following protocols and taking every precaution to ensure the health and safety of all crew members and patients on board.”
Fage added that the cases did not hinder Mercy’s ability to fulfill its mission.
As the majority of the crew returns to previous assignments on land, about 60 sailors will disembark and move to other healthcare facilities where they will continue supporting local efforts.
“After arriving on station, the personnel aboard Mercy were able to safely execute our mission in support of FEMA and in coordination with state and local authorities,” Capt. Dan Cobian, commodore of Destroyer Squadron 21, said in the release.
“In addition to supporting Los Angeles-area hospitals, we were able to expand our mission by providing support to a local skilled nursing facility and we also sent personnel to aid USNS Comfort for their effort in New York. Our Sailors answered the call and showed our country and the world the capability of our combined Navy Medicine and Military Sea Lift Command team in providing aid during this pandemic.”
The Navy’s other hospital ship, the USNS Comfort, departed New York City on April 30 after spending approximately one month supporting the city’s coronavirus efforts.
A minimal number of patients admitted to the Comfort during the ship’s first week in New York prompted officials to modify the ship’s mission to one of accepting COVID-19 patients.
By the time of Comfort’s departure, the approximately 1,200-person crew and 1,000-bed hospital had treated just 182 patients, of which approximately 70 percent had COVID-19, according to Capt. Patrick Amersbach, commanding officer of the Comfort’s Medical Treatment Facility.
Underutilization of added medical resources in New York City was not unique to the Comfort, however. Thousands of hospital beds made available in a converted convention center went largely unused after hasty assembly by the Army Corps of Engineers.
The Javits Center, which was initially envisioned as a 2,500-bed field hospital for non-COVID patients, converted to coronavirus-only hospital shortly after going operational. Still, the highest number of patients treated at the convention center at one time topped out at close to 500.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo thanked the crew of the hospital ship prior to its departure and echoed a hope that the strain placed on New York’s hospitals is waning.
“I believe Comfort not only brought comfort but also saved lives,” Cuomo said.
Comfort arrived days later in its home port of Norfolk, Virginia, where it will remain ready for future assignments, Navy officials said.
Jon Simkins is a writer and editor for Military Times, and a USMC veteran.