U.S. Navy hospital ship USNS Mercy to depart Port of L.A. Friday

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By Nouran Salahieh, KTLA 5 Los Angeles, May 14 2020

A man in a face mask walks past the U.S. Navy hospital ship, the USNS Mercy, on March 28, 2020, at the Port of Los Angeles in San Pedro. (Apu Gomes/AFP via Getty Images)

A U.S. Navy hospital ship will leave the Port of Los Angeles Friday, seven weeks after arriving to provide relief to local hospitals amid coronavirus pandemic, authorities announced.

The USNS Mercy had arrived at a time when state and local officials were anticipating a crush of COVID-19 hospitalizations that threatened to overwhelm local hospitals. They scrambled to add hospital beds, estimating that tens of thousands more would be needed across the state.

The ship arrived on March 27 to take in patients that don’t have COVID-19, freeing up space at local hospitals.

But as social distancing efforts took shape, later projections by the county showed that local hospitals will be able to meet the demand for beds and ventilators in the coming weeks.

Though the USNS Mercy will return to its home port in San Diego, medical personnel from the ship will stay in the L.A. area to provide support to local facilities, the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services said Thursday.

This includes 40 medical staffers who will stay at a state-operated alternative care site at Fairview Developmental Center in Costa Mesa, authorities said.

Four medical support teams with six staff members each will also be deployed to different facilities to help out as needed, including at skilled nursing facilities, which have been among the hardest hit during the pandemic, grappling virus clusters and staff shortages.

“Our work to protect public health and safety is far from done but having the Mercy and its highly-trained medical personnel stationed in the most populous region of the state was critical to our ability to respond in the first stages of the pandemic,” Cal OES Director Mark Ghilarducci said in a written statement.  

Staff from the hospital ship already started helping skilled nursing facilities in the L.A. area last Friday, according to Gov. Gavin Newsom.

There have been coronavirus outbreaks at dozens of skilled nursing facilities across L.A. County.

And in the state’s most populous county, about half the people who died of COVID-19 have lived in settings where people are clustered close together. The county’s public health director Barbara Ferrer said the majority of those settings have been nursing homes.

When the ship had arrived at the Port of L.A., it brought with it a crew of 800, 12 fully-equipped operating rooms, laboratories, a pharmacy, radiological equipment and 1,000 beds, becoming the largest hospital in the city.

The navy ship ended up treating 77 patients and discharged its final patient last week, six weeks after first docking in L.A., U.S. 3rd Fleet spokesman Cmdr. John Fage told told USNI News.

“The medical professionals aboard Mercy are proud and humbled to have assisted FEMA, the State of California, Los Angeles County and the City of Los Angeles, while serving as a ‘relief valve’ to the community during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic,” USNS Mercy commanding officer Capt. John Rotrucksaid in a written statement. “Every patient brought aboard created one more available bed in a local hospital.”

The floating hospital was meant to serve as a “COVID-19 free bubble,” where no one infected would come on board, L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti had said as he stood alongside the governor the day it docked.

But as the coronavirus spread throughout the county, the ship ended up having at least seven crew members test positive for the virus. The outbreak prompted the Navy to remove 116 medical staff members from the ship in mid-April.

And with COVID-19 hospitalizations stabilizing over the past few weeks, the ship was able to scale back operations, going from 1,000 beds to 250 around the time the infections were reported, the Associated Press reported.

Across L.A. County hospitals, 1,742 people were hospitalized for the respiratory illness on Thursday and a total of 5,660 patients with COVID-19 had been hospitalized countywide so far.

As of Tuesday, the county had 1,021 available hospital beds and another 199 available in intensive care units, according to the L.A. County Department of Health Services.

There were 1,317 available ventilators, not including the 235 machines that the Health Services department has.