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USNS Mercy Unavailable to Help LA County as Pandemic Sweeps California

mercy
USNS Mercy departs Los Angeles, May 2020 (U.S. Navy)

Published Jan 6, 2021 6:28 PM by The Maritime Executive

As the coronavirus rages through Southern California, Los Angeles County's ICU beds are filling fast, and the county's health agency has instructed ambulance services not to deliver patients with a low chance of survival to the emergency room. Last week, LA County supervisor Janice Hahn called for the Navy to deploy the hospital ship USNS Mercy to provide backup for the region's strained healthcare system, as the ship did during the first COVID surge in March. However, the Navy said Wednesday that Mercy is not available: she is undergoing an overhaul at the Vigor Industrial yard in Portland, Oregon, and is not currently able to sail, a Military Sealift Command spokesperson told USNI News.

"We need the USNS Mercy back in Los Angeles. But I have heard reports that the ship is dry-docked in Portland for 'scheduled maintenance," said Hahn in a social media message. "I am not an expert, but I have to question the wisdom of dry-docking a hospital ship in the middle of a pandemic. This surge is overwhelming our hospital system. The Navy should expedite the Mercy’s maintenance and return her to service as a hospital ship—  or at the very least find a way to send the Mercy’s medical team."

The Mercy has been at the yard since July 2020 for a "major overhaul," including a flight deck upgrade, lifeboat upgrades and propulsion and structural work - part of a service-life extension program that is intended to carry her through to 2036, spokesman Tom Van Leunen told USNI. She will not be available until refit work and sea trials are completed this spring. 

USNS Mercy was last deployed to the Port of Los Angeles in March 2020. The plan called for her medical facilities to treat existing non-COVID patients in order to relieve pressure on area hospitals. However, LA's hospitals never used Mercy's referral-only services at the intended scale, and she only served about 77 patients over the seven-week span of her deployment. She sustained an onboard coronavirus outbreak several weeks after her arrival, forcing 100 crewmembers to quarantine. 

This time the need is different, local officials say. The LA hospital system is running out of ICU beds to treat ordinary patients with serious medical conditions, and it is even running short on medical-grade oxygen. According to the county's data, there are only about 40 ICU beds available across the entire system of 70 hospitals in the region - down from 300 ICU beds in April. 

"This situation has drastically changed from the original docking of the USNS Mercy . . . in [March] 2020. The need has not been any greater to assist with other medical ailments such as heart, cancer and non-COVID-19 related illnesses," said Patrick Furey, the mayor of the city of Torrance, in an appeal to the county.