A Look at the U.S. Navy Hospital Ships Sent to Battle the Coronavirus

Kyle Mizokami
Photo credit: LINH PHAM - Getty Images

From Popular Mechanics

  • The Navy is activating its two hospital ships, Mercy and Comfort, to provide medical services during the coronavirus pandemic.
  • The two converted supertankers will provide trauma care as a backup to land hospitals caring for victims of the virus.
  • The ships will be deployed one on each coast of the continental United States.

The U.S. Navy is activating its two hospital ships, the USNS Mercy and USNS Comfort, to provide medical assistance during the coronavirus outbreak. The two ships, built to accommodate large numbers of casualties during wartime, will provide backup medical services on the West and East Coasts as land-based hospitals provide care to those diagnosed with the COVID-19 virus.

The Navy is activating USNS Mercy, based at San Diego, California, and USNS Comfort, based at Norfolk, Virginia. Under normal conditions, the two ships sit dockside and are manned for only basic maintenance. Upon activation, each is boarded by U.S. Navy medical personnel and loaded with medical supplies and equipment. At full strength, each ship has a crew of 71 and up to 1,200 doctors, nurses, and other medical specialists. The process typically takes five days. Mercy is ready to go but Comfort is currently in the middle of a maintenance period that will probably delay activation.

Photo credit: U.S. Navy - Getty Images

The two ships of the Mercy-class were built during the Cold War to provide medical services in the event of a major conflict. Mercy and Comfort are part of the U.S. Navy but are classified as auxiliaries, like tankers and logistic ships, rather than warships built for combat. As a result the ships use the USNS prefix, for U.S. Naval Service, rather than USS for United States Ship. The ships are staffed by civilian mariners instead of U.S. Navy personnel that sail under contract with the U.S. Navy. Other countries maintain hospital ships, including China’s “Peace Ark,” but none are larger or have more capabilities than the Mercy class.

The Mercy ships were built in the mid-1980s on the hull of San Clemente-class supertankers. Each is 894 feet long with a beam of 106 feet, resulting in tremendous internal volume for medical services. These services include 12 fully-equipped operating rooms, a 1,000-bed hospital facility, digital radiological services, a medical laboratory, a pharmacy, an optometry lab, a CAT-scan and two oxygen producing plants. The two ships have a helicopter landing pad and can take on patients by small boats and other watercraft.

Photo credit: U.S. Navy - Getty Images

According to U.S. Naval Institute News, the two hospital ships will be used, one on each coast, to support civilian hospitals. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper explained during a press conference yesterday that the ships, like many U.S. military medical units, are focused on trauma cases—physical injuries resulting from combat. They are not designed with the “segregated spaces” to deal with infectious diseases. As a result each hospital ship will be used—for now anyway—to complement hospitals on shore, addressing physical injuries while hospitals concentrate their attention on the COVID-19 outbreak.

The ships are periodically called up to address natural disasters, most recently in 2017 in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria on the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico. The U.S. government announced today that Comfort will go to New York City, where it will take up station in New York Harbor. Mercy will likely go to a similar metropolis on the West Coast, with likely candidates including Seattle, the San Francisco Bay Area, and Los Angeles.

The Navy announced an intention to retire one of the two aging hospital ships in 2018, citing the costs of keeping them on standby. Congress pushed back on the idea, and the plan was dropped.

Source: U.S. Naval Institute News.

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