USNS Mercy May Scale Back Mission in Los Angeles

USNS Mercy Arrives at the Port of LA, March 27 (USN file image)

Published Apr 16, 2020 8:16 PM by The Maritime Executive

Amidst an onboard outbreak of coronavirus, the hospital ship USNS Mercy may reduce her direct involvement in providing health care for the Los Angeles region. Instead, the Mercy may derate its ward capacity to 250 beds and move roughly 100 medical personnel to off-ship facilities. 

40 medical crewmembers are slated for deployment to a nursing facility beginning Monday, CO Capt. John Rotruck told local media. Nursing homes have been particularly hard-hit by the pandemic, and with adequate general hospital capacity available for non-COVID patients in LA, reducing Mercy's onboard capacity would free up staff for off-ship service where it is needed. 

Mercy was originally designated as a referral-only facility for existing non-COVID hospital patients. The referral process was carefully designed to prevent the arrival of coronavirus-positive individuals on board. However, her services have not been utilized at scale, as LA's hospitals have not experienced an outsized surge in coronavirus cases. Since her arrival in LA, Mercy has only served about 50 patients, according to local ABC 7 News.

As a complicating factor, the novel coronavirus has arrived on board. Despite preventative measures, seven members of Mercy's crew have tested positive, and they have been removed from the ship for isolation. According to the U.S. Navy, a small number of them had contact with patients before they were diagnosed.

“Two [COVID-positive] crewmembers had minimal contact with a very small number of patients, and both were wearing the proper personal protective equipment during those interactions; an N95 mask, gloves, and gown," the Navy said in a statement to local media. No cases have been detected among the small number of patients aboard Mercy so far.

More than 100 additional crewmembers have been removed from the vessel and placed in quarantine. One of the seven confirmed cases was among this group and tested positive after leaving the vessel. 

While the initial source of infection aboard USNS Mercy is not known, the Navy has confirmed that the only screening for crewmembers before embarkation was a temperature check and a questionnaire about recent contacts and health. In the cruise industry, which faces comparable prevention challenges, these clinical screening methods have not proven effective in detecting all COVID-19 cases.