To contain coronavirus, US Navy to deploy hospital ships

The hospital ships were one of the few suggestions some analysts have made when discussing what the US Armed Forces could do to help stem the spread of the coronavirus.

San Diego-based hospital ship USNS Mercy prepares for possible deployment to aid the typhoon-stricken areas of the Philippines from its port in San Diego, California November 15, 2013. (photo credit: MIKE BLAKE/ REUTERS)
San Diego-based hospital ship USNS Mercy prepares for possible deployment to aid the typhoon-stricken areas of the Philippines from its port in San Diego, California November 15, 2013.
(photo credit: MIKE BLAKE/ REUTERS)
The Pentagon has begun mobilizing US Navy hospital ships as part of the US Defense Department's plan to contain the domestic spread of the coronavirus, USNI News reported.
“We’ve already given orders to the Navy… to lean forward in terms of getting them ready to deploy,” Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Tuesday, the report stated.
The ships, designated USNS Mercy (T-AH-19) and USNS Comfort (T-AH-20) and docked in California and Virginia respectively, will be outfitted with medical equipment and personnel over the coming days before heading for the West and East coasts. Both ships contain 1,000 hospital beds, pharmacies, medical and optometry labs and 12 operating rooms, along with several other utilities.
Two defense sources said to USNI News that the idea behind the ships' deployment was originally to take on non-coronavirus cases from hospitals along the coast. Doing this would allow those hospitals to devote their resources to treating serious cases of COVID-19.
“If, for example, a community has a large outbreak and there’s a need for emergency room support or trauma support, a hospital ship is perfectly designed to do that,” Joint Staff surgeon Air Force Brig.-Gen. Paul Friedrichs told Politico.
“It’s hard to get the hospital ship to St. Louis, but along the coasts, it is an option to use.”
It is estimated that it will take about a week to get the ships fully staffed, due to needing to mobilize medical staff from both active duty and the reserves. However, many of the medical staff from reserve would be pulled from civilian hospitals.
“The big challenge isn’t the availability of these inventories it’s the medical professionals. All of those doctors and nurses either come from our medical treatment facilities or they come from the reserves, which means civilians,” Esper said, according to USNI News.
“What I don’t want to do is take reservists from a hospital where they are needed just to put them on a ship to take them somewhere else where they’re needed.”
“The Department of Defense is ready, willing and able to support civilian authorities to the greatest extent possible with the direction of the president,” said Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman, according to Politico. “We just want to make sure that the conversation that is being had is informed by the facts of what is possible, what is not, and what those trade-offs are.”
The hospital ships were one of the few suggestions some analysts have made when discussing what the US Armed Forces could do to help stem the spread of the coronavirus. One other option, small emergency makeshift medical facilities that are known as "tent hospitals," is something the army has experience doing, but Friedrichs explained to Politico that these facilities are limited, both in size and capability. Field hospitals, however, are much larger, but they are designed to support trauma patients, and are not well equipped at dealing with an infectious disease outbreak like COVID-19.
“What we are trying to be very careful about is not over promising,” Friedrichs said. “There are not thousand-bed medical centers all over the US; they are for the most part small community hospitals.”
Former Navy surgeon-general Vice Admiral (ret.) Matthew Nathan explained to Politico that the military is largely used to dealing with trauma patients who are otherwise healthy with no underlying medical conditions.
However, one other area the military can be able to help is in vaccine development. Nathan explained to Politico that the US military has a number of research centers in various countries specializing in disease surveillance, and military researchers have already been hard at work on working on a vaccine.
These efforts may have been worth it, as a potential vaccine that targets the "spike protein," which helps the virus attach itself to human cells, is currently being tested on mice. However, the vaccine would only be made available to humans in 12-18 months at best, Politico reported.


Tags US Navy