A Hospital Ship's Mission During a COVID-19 Peak in LA

Doug Brunk

June 24, 2020

Editor's note: Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape's Coronavirus Resource Center.

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.

"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.

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 Mercys 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."

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."

Start With Screening

All crew members underwent a temperature check and completed a health screening questionnaire: once before departing their home of record and again before boarding Mercy. Based on those results, crew members and medical staff were screened for COVID-19 and tested as needed in order to minimize the risk of an outbreak aboard the ship.

Fewer than 1% of crew members developed COVID-19 or tested positive for the virus during the mission, according to Capt. Rotruck. Affected individuals were isolated and quarantined. "All staff have recovered and are doing well," he said.

Mercy personnel worked with local health officials to ensure that all patients transferred to the ship tested negative for COVID-19. Physicians aboard the Mercy then worked directly with the patients' civilian physician to ensure a safe and thorough turnover process before the patients were transferred.

From Basic Medical to Trauma Care

Sailors assigned to the hospital ship USNS Mercy treat a patient from Los Angeles medical facilities on March 29.

Care aboard the ship, which consists of open-bay medical wards, ranged from basic medical and surgical care to critical care and trauma. The most common procedures were cholecystectomies and orthopedic procedures, and the average length of stay was 4-5 days, according to Cdr. Blevins. Over the course of the mission, the medical professionals conducted 36 surgeries, 77 x-ray exams, 26 CT scans, and administered hundreds of ancillary studies ranging from routine labs to high-end x-rays and blood transfusion support. "Within our ICU, we did have some end-of-life patients who ended up dying on our ship in comfort care," Cdr. Blevins said. "Fortunately, we had a wonderful ICU team who had a great deal of experience with end-of-life care and were able to take care of these patients very comfortably and ensure good communication with family and loved ones during that time. In most instances we tried to make sure that people got to FaceTime or video chat with their loved one before they passed away."

Capt. John Rotruck (left), USNS Mercy's Medical Treatment Facility’s commanding officer, observes a pacemaker surgery aboard the ship on April 29.

The Mercy, which includes 12 operating rooms, four x-ray units, and one CAT-scan unit, was not equipped to deliver pediatric or obstetrical care. Other unavailable services included psychiatry, oncology, cardiac and thoracic surgery, nuclear medicine, MRI, mammography, electrophysiology, cardiac catheterization, negative-pressure isolation, speech therapy, and occupational therapy.

Not Your Typical Hospital Experience

But for patients who did receive medical care aboard the Mercy – which made three 150-day deployments in recent years for the military-led humanitarian response known as Pacific Partnership in 2015, 2016, and 2018 – it was an experience that they are unlikely to forget.

"Every time a patient left the ship, our team on the ground surveyed them to see how their experience was and see what we could do to improve," Cdr. Blevins said. "Across the board, they were all very appreciative of the medical care. We had a couple of veterans on board. They got [USNS Mercy] hats on their way out and seemed to very much enjoy a slightly different experience than they would get at a regular hospital."

Capt. Rotruck added that the enthusiasm crew members had for supporting fellow Americans "really energized our team and really saturated that caring aspect of the people who interacted directly with patients," he said. "It wasn't just the physicians and nurses, but it was the staff delivering the food and coming to take blood samples and every other interaction that the patients had with our team. I think they really felt that enthusiasm for being there and supporting our neighbors in LA [Los Angeles]."

Crew Life Aboard the Mercy

Just as with any hospital on shore, personnel aboard the Mercy practiced preventive hygiene measures recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, such as wearing cloth face masks, spacing out tables in the dining hall, closing indoor gyms, and devising creative ways to stay physically fit. Popular options included jogging around the perimeter of the ship and practicing yoga and calisthenics on the deck, "making sure you were physically distanced appropriately, and when you were done, putting your mask back on," Cdr. Blevins said. Others supplemented their workouts with a pull-up bar on the deck. "In addition, we have a series of ramps that run on the starboard side of the ship that we can use for patient movement with litters on wheels or patient beds," Capt. Rotruck said. "The uphill portion of those ramps represents a good workout opportunity as well."

Downtime in an era of physical distancing also afforded crew members the opportunity to call or FaceTime with loved ones, watch streamed TV shows and movies, and work on their own professional development. Some continued with coursework for online degree programs offered by colleges and universities they were enrolled in, while some enlisted personnel used the time to complete the Navy Enlisted Warfare Qualification Programs Instruction, which issues the basic overarching requirements for the qualification and designation of all enlisted warfare programs.

"As you can imagine, people spend a lot of time learning how the ship works and how it integrates into larger naval forces and so forth," Capt. Rotruck said. "Not just our ship but also other ships: their weapons systems and defense mechanisms and navigation systems. We had people spending a significant amount of time working on that. We had people complete their Enlisted Surface Warfare qualification while we were on the mission."

End of the Mission

Mercy returned to its home base in San Diego on May 15, but about 60 medical personnel stayed behind in Los Angeles to support Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), state, and local health care professionals. Some worked at a site where clinicians provided care for COVID-19–positive patients who had been transferred from area skilled nursing facilities.

In addition, a team consisting of one nurse and five corpsmen "would go out to individual skilled nursing facilities and mainly conduct assessments and training, such as training in donning proper PPE [personal protective equipment] and determining what needs they had," Capt. Rotruck said. "They met those needs if possible or [communicated with California officials] and let them know what the requirements were and what the needs were in that facility." The assignment for those who stayed behind ended on May 31.

On the opposite coast, Mercy's sister ship, USNS Comfort, arrived in New York Harbor from Norfolk, Va., on March 30 and spent 3½ weeks assisting area hospitals in the COVID-19 pandemic fight. A few days into the mission, Comfort's internal spaces were reconfigured to create separate COVID-negative and COVID-positive sections. Medical teams aboard the ship cared for a total of 182 patients during the assignment.

Looking back on Mercy's mission, Cdr. Blevins marveled at the sense of teamwork that unfolded. "We have quarterly training exercises with a core set of personnel, [and] we train getting ready for activation in 5 days," she said. "All of that training kicks in and it comes to fruition in a mission like this. It was terrific to see a group of very disparate subject matter experts from all over the country come together with one purpose: which was to serve our own country during the pandemic."

Capt. Rotruck pointed out that the experience enabled enlisted and nonenlisted physicians to maintain their skill sets during a time when military and civilian hospitals had stopped doing elective procedures and routine appointments. "The fact that those people were able to come on board the ship and continue to conduct their medical practice and maintain their skills and competencies in an environment that they weren't quite used to is great," he said. "Otherwise, some of those medical personnel would have been sitting idle, wherever they were from. This is the power of Navy medicine on behalf of our country."

This story originally appeared on MDedge.com.

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