Inside Mercy’s mission to care for non-COVID patients in Los Angeles


When the hospital ship USNS Mercy departed San Diego’s Naval Station North Island on March 23, 2020, to support the Department of Defense efforts in Los Angeles during the coronavirus outbreak, Commander Erin Blevins remembers the crew’s excitement was palpable.

Commander Erin Blevins, Naval Medical Center San Diego

Commander Erin Blevins

“We normally do partnerships abroad and respond to tsunamis and earthquakes,” said Cdr. Blevins, MD, a pediatric hematologist-oncologist who served as director of medical services for the mission. “This was a slight change in situation, but still disaster relief in the form of a pandemic. We switched our mindset to putting together the best experts for an infectious disease pandemic versus an earthquake disaster relief.”

A new mission

Hospital ship USNS Mercy arrives in San Diego on May 15. Mercy served as a referral hospital for non–COVID-19 patients admitted to shore-based hospitals. Photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Timothy E. Heaps

Hospital ship USNS Mercy arrives in San Diego on May 15. Mercy served as a referral hospital for non–COVID-19 patients admitted to shore-based hospitals.

The 1,000-bed Mercy ship – a converted San Clemente–class oil tanker that was delivered in 1986 – spent nearly 50 days pier side in Los Angeles as a referral hospital for non–COVID-19 patients, so that clinicians at Los Angeles area hospitals could care for an anticipated surge of COVID-19 patients. “We went into it with expectations of, ‘We’ll treat as many patients as you need us to take,” Cdr. Blevins recalled. “I don’t even think Los Angeles [health officials] knew exactly where they were going to peak and what the need was going to be.”

Between March 29 and May 15, about 1,071 medical personnel aboard the Mercy cared for 77 patients with an average age of 53 years who were referred from 11 Los Angeles area hospitals. The physicians, nurses, and other medical support personnel were drawn from military treatment facilities across the country. “We had additional people join us as we scoped the mission to be more medically heavy and surgically light,” said Captain John Rotruck, MD, an anesthesiologist who is commanding officer of Mercy’s medical treatment facility. “We did adjust to make sure that we had the right staffing mix to meet the parameters that we were assigned. That was the crux of the change: a change in flavors of staffing to ensure that we focused on ICU and ward medical care as opposed to very heavy surgical care in support of a combat operation.”

commanding officer of the Military Treatment Facility USNS Mercy Courtesy Petty Officer 1st Class David Mora

Capt. John Rotruck, commanding officer of the Military Treatment Facility USNS Mercy, spoke to members of the press before the ship departed Naval Base San Diego in March.

About 10% of the team consisted of reservists who volunteered for the mission. “There’s no way you could have walked around the ship and known who was active duty and who was reservist,” said Capt. Rotruck, who was formerly chief of staff at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, Bethesda, Md. “They worked together so well, and I think that marriage of active duty who are used to working in a military medical treatment facility – in our case, a Navy medical treatment facility – together with our reservist physician colleagues who work in civilian facilities around the country, was beneficial. It was a synergistic relationship. I think both sides walked away learning quite a bit from each other.”


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