Facing COVID Surge, LA County Calls for Navy Hospital Ship to Return

USNS Mercy arriving at the Port of Los Angeles' cruise terminal, March 2020 (USN file image)

Published Dec 31, 2020 4:01 PM by The Maritime Executive

The supervisor of Los Angeles County has called for a second deployment of the hospital ship USNS Mercy to help the region address a new surge of COVID-19 cases. 

"Our [unionized] healthcare workers are exhausted and our hospitals are overwhelmed. They need backup," LA County supervisor Janice Hahn wrote in a letter to California Governor Gavin Newsom on Wednesday. "This surge is the crisis that we dreaded all along. We need as much support as we can get for our healthcare workers, and we need the USNS Mercy back in the Port of Los Angeles."

Hahn also joined the call from the healthcare workers' union SEIU Local 721 to bring in Army National Guard medical personnel - particularly nurses and respiratory care specialists. The union also called for a coordinated federal plan of action from the incoming Biden administration. 

In recent weeks, California has recorded about 30-40,000 new cases per day, up from 4-5,000 per day in October. It currently leads the nation in both daily and per-capita case count, with about 100 new cases reported per 100,000 people every day. Los Angeles County exceeds that average with a rate of about 130 new cases per 100,000.

First deployment

USNS Mercy was deployed from her home port in San Diego to the Port of Los Angeles in late March. The initial plan called for Mercy's medical facilities to treat existing non-COVID patients in order to relieve pressure on area hospitals, which were flooded with coronavirus cases. However, LA hospitals never used her referral-only services at the intended scale, and she only served about 77 patients over the seven-week span of her deployment. 

As other congregate-setting facilities have found - including cruise ships, warships, merchant ships and institutions with military discipline - detecting and excluding every asymptomatic COVID case is exceptionally challenging. Even with low patient numbers and a careful COVID screening plan, USNS Mercy sustained an onboard outbreak within weeks of arrival, and about 100 crewmembers were placed in quarantine on shore. Her onboard services were cut back in favor of deploying her medical staff to shoreside care facilities, including a purpose-built site for the isolation and treatment of mild COVID cases. She ultimately departed LA in mid-May.