US to Deploy Hospital Ships for Coronavirus Response

Maritime Activity Reports, Inc.

March 19, 2020

The USNS Mercy (Photo: Zach Kreitzer, U.S. Navy)

The USNS Mercy (Photo: Zach Kreitzer, U.S. Navy)

Two U.S. Navy hospital ships are being prepared to aid shoreside medical facilities that could become overrun by the coronavirus pandemic, the Pentagon's chief spokesman said.

The USNS Comfort and USNS Mercy will be deployed "as needed to assist potentially overwhelmed counties with acute patient care" as part of the Defense Department's response to the pandemic, Jonathan Rath Hoffman, assistant to the defense secretary for public affairs, said during a news conference at the Pentagon on Wednesday.

The Comfort is now in Norfolk, Va., for maintenance, and the Navy has been asked to expedite that, Hoffman said, adding that it may take "a little while" for that ship to be ready to deploy. It will go to New York when its maintenance is complete.

The Mercy is on the West Coast and is ready to deploy in "days, not weeks," he said, and its destination will be determined when it's ready to sail.

Both ships face manning issues, however. said Air Force Brig. Gen. (Dr.) Paul Friedrichs, the Joint Staff surgeon, who joined Hoffman at the briefing. He said the ships would likely be manned with typical staffs of personnel trained for combat casualty care, rather than for dealing with a contagious disease like the coronavirus. "Our understanding is that the intent is the ships will be used to take non-coronavirus patients, which is what our staffs are best assigned and organized to do," he said.

Defense Secretary Dr. Mark T. Esper suggested on Tuesday that one role for military medical professionals in regard to coronavirus response would be to take non-coronavirus patient care off of the hands of civilian hospital staffs so that those staffs could instead deal with coronavirus patients. Military medical personnel, and military medical facilities are geared more toward trauma care than dealing with contagious patients, he said.

The Defense Department has also put a number of various active duty medical units on alert, Friedrichs said. "Right now, what we are trying to do is make sure we have a range of options available to meet the requests that may come to us from [the Department of Health and Human Services] and from communities."

Altogether, Friedrichs said, enough units have been put on alert to provide 1,000 beds, a number that doesn't include those on the Navy's hospital ships.

The Mercy class hospital ships, Mercy and Comfort, are converted San Clemente-class supertankers operated by Military Sealift Command to provide emergency, on-site care for American combatant forces, as well as for use in support of disaster relief and humanitarian operations Originally built in the 1970s by the National Steel and Shipbuilding Company, they were acquired by the Navy and converted into hospital ships, coming into service in 1986 and 1987.

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