News and Commentary

U.S. Navy Activates Hospital Ships For Coronavirus Response
US Navy hospital ship USNS Mercy arrives in Nha Trang in central Vietnam on May 17, 2018 as part of a two-week Pacific Partnership mission involving multilateral humanitarian assistance and disaster relief preparedness aimed at boosting security ties between the former war foes. (Photo by Linh PHAM / AFP)
LINH PHAM/AFP via Getty Images

Secretary of Defense Mark Esper revealed to the press Tuesday that the Pentagon has initiated the process of activating two Navy hospital ships — one on the West Coast and one on the East Coast — to help with the federal coronavirus response.

“We’ve already given orders to the Navy… to lean forward in terms of getting them ready to deploy,” Sec. Esper told reporters Tuesday, as reported by U.S. Naval Institute News.

The two hospital ships that have begun activation are USNS Mercy (T-AH-19) and USNS Comfort (T-AH-20), which are homeported at Naval Station San Diego, CA, and Naval Station Norfolk, VA, respectively, and both have a 1,000 bed-capacity.

Activating the hospital ships, Sec. Esper explained, will help “take the pressure off of civilian hospitals when it comes to trauma cases, to open up civilian hospital rooms for infectious diseases.”

“The ships will now begin the several days-long process of bringing aboard medical staff and equipment ahead of deploying along the East and West coasts, a defense official confirmed to USNI News on Tuesday afternoon,” the outlet reported. To fully mobilize personnel takes a week or more, officials say.

“The big challenge isn’t the availability of these inventories, it’s the medical professionals,” Esper explained. “All of those doctors and nurses either come from our medical treatment facilities or they come from the reserves, which means civilians.”

“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 are needed,” the Defense Secretary added. “We’ve got to be very conscious of that.”

“Two sources told USNI News that the idea was for the ships to provide relief for coastal hospital systems, with the ships taking on non-COVID-19 cases and allowing the hospitals to focus on the most critical patients suffering from the virus,” USNI News explains. “The Pentagon also has extensive equipment for erecting field hospitals in addition to the hospital ships, but those facilities are optimized for trauma cases, with several beds close together, and not for infectious patients.”

“In some ways we want to be the last resort,” Esper said.

As reported by Reuters, the White House said earlier Tuesday that it has been in talks with the Pentagon about the Army Corps of Engineers helping to set up field hospitals as part of the mitigation plan.

“The Army Corps of Engineers is ready, willing and able, we have to give them the go ahead if we find that it’s going to be necessary, we think that we can have quite a few units up very rapidly,” Trump said Tuesday.

Sec. Esper confirmed that he was willing to deploy the Army Corps of Engineers to set up field hospitals, but noted that doing so would require the military to go through a laborious contracting process that could slow things down. Contracting at the state or local level, he suggested, would be more efficient.

Related: Vice President Pence: When Coronavirus Outbreak Over ‘Economy Will Come Roaring Back’