The U.S. Navy is preparing to activate its two hospital ships in response to the Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, according to Defense Secretary Dr. Mark T. Esper.
“We’ve already given orders to the Navy, a few days ago, to lean forward in terms of getting them ready to deploy,” the Defense Secretary said on Tuesday.
The Navy operates two Mercy-class hospital ships, USNS Mercy (T-AH-19) and USNS Comfort (T-AH-20). Mercy is homeported at Naval Station San Diego, California on the U.S. west coast, while Comfort is based at Naval Station Norfolk, Virginia on the east coast.
Esper said that the Comfort is currently undergoing maintenance and the Mercy is in port.
But while those ships and other DOD medical facilities such as hospitals and tent-based deployable medical facilities do provide capability, the secretary said, those capabilities are geared in many cases toward trauma care, rather than patients with COVID-19.
“They don’t necessarily have the space, the segregated space, you need to deal with infectious disease,” he said. Still, he added, those facilities might be used to take loads off civilian medical facilities so those civilian facilities might treat COVID-19 cases.
“One of the ways you could use the field hospitals, the hospital ships or things in between is to take the pressure off the civilian hospitals when it comes to trauma cases to open up civilian hospital rooms for infectious diseases,” Esper said.
The activation of the ships is a week-long process that involves bringing aboard equipment, and medical staff from across the active duty and reserve forces.
Mercy-class hospital ships
The Mercy-class is a class of two hospital ships operated by the U.S. Navy’s Military Sealift Command (MSC).
These ships are converted San Clemente-class supertankers originally built in the 1970s by the National Steel and Shipbuilding Company (NASSCO). They were acquired by the Navy and converted into hospital ships.
The two ships – USNS Mercy (T-AH-19) (ex SS Worth) and USNS Comfort (T-AH-20) (ex SS Rose City) – were put into service in 1986 and 1987 respectively replacing the Haven-class hospital ships. The USNS prefix identifies them as non-commissioned ships owned by the U.S. Navy and operationally crewed by civilians from the MSC.
The ships are designed to provide emergency, on-site care for American combatant forces, and also for use in support of Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) operations. Each ship contains 12 fully equipped operating theaters, a 1,000-bed hospital facility, radiological services, medical laboratory, pharmacy, optometry labs, CAT scans, and two oxygen-producing plants.
A uniformed naval hospital staff and naval support staff is embarked when Comfort is deployed, said staffs consisting primarily of naval officers from the Navy’s Medical Corps, Dental Corps, Medical Service Corps, Nurse Corps and Chaplain Corps, and naval enlisted personnel from the Hospital Corpsman rating and various administrative and technical support ratings (e.g., Yeoman, Personnel Specialist, Information Systems Technician, Religious Program Specialist, etc.).
In accordance with the Geneva Conventions, these hospital ships and crew do not carry any offensive weapons. Firing upon the ships would be considered a war crime as the ship only carries weapons for self-defense.