Seven weeks ago a Navy hospital ship pulled into the Port of Los Angeles to provide relief to the city amid fears it was about to become the next epicenter for the coronavirus pandemic after New York City. But Los Angeles so far hasn’t been overrun with virus cases, and on Friday the massive USNS Mercy left after treating just 77 patients.
Tugs pulled the Mercy away from its dock shortly after 7 a.m., and the vessel headed south down the coast back to its home port of San Diego.
The ship with 1,000 hospital beds was a powerful symbol of the federal government’s response to the pandemic and was welcomed by Gov. Gavin Newsom and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti when it arrived at the end of March to provide beds for non-coronavirus cases to take the load off regional medical centers expecting a surge of COVID-19 patients. Garcetti noted the ship immediately became his city’s largest hospital.
The city averted the worst predictions, and so the Mercy didn’t play a huge role as a safety net.
The ship instead dealt with its own small outbreak on board with nine crew members testing positive for the virus in April. No patients are believed to have been infected while on the ship.
About 750 crew members were sent to stay at nearby hotels. The Navy removed all but 250 hospital beds to ensure social distancing and prevent another outbreak.
That same month, the Navy began sending its medical staff to skilled nursing facilities that were facing staff shortages because of outbreaks. About 60 medical staff assigned to the ship will remain in the Los Angeles area.
Some personnel were also sent from the Mercy to aid the USNS Comfort in New York City. That ship initially planned to treat only non-coronavirus cases like the Mercy. But as the city became overwhelmed and doctors criticized the Navy for having empty beds on board, it started accepting coronavirus patients. It left New York on April 30 after treating 182 patients during its month docked there.
In the end, the 894-foot-long (272 meter-long) converted supertankers designed to treat mass casualties from international conflicts treated only a fraction of patients relative to their capacity as the grim outlooks improved.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness and lead to death, and nursing homes have been hit hard.
The Mercy performed a total of 36 surgeries on its non-coronavirus patients, including an operation that marked the first time a pacemaker was repaired aboard a Navy ship. The last patient left the ship May 5.
The Navy’s storied hospital ships could be used again if a second wave hits.
Mercy’s Capt. John Rotruck said in a statement that he couldn’t be “more proud” of his sailors who came from bases across Southern California and quickly learned to work as a team seamlessly.
“We came together and accomplished every task we were given,” he said.
Steve Kuzj reports for the KTLA 5 Morning News on May 15, 2020.