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From The Spanish Flu To The Current Pandemic: A History Of The USNS Mercy

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The USNS Mercy after it arrived at the Port of L.A. on March 27. (Carolyn Cole/AFP via Getty Images)
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The USNS Mercy docked in Los Angeles at the end of March to relieve area hospitals.

It's not taking patients with COVID-19 symptoms because, well, hospital ships like the Mercy aren’t designed to treat viral diseases, says Sal Mercogliano, a professor of history at Campbell University and a former merchant mariner.

“The issue with doing that onboard a hospital ship is fairly significant because hospital ships are basically floating communities -- they produce their own water, they produce their own air, they produce everything they need onboard the vessel to be self-contained so they can operate far from land.”

Mercogliano says the Mercy and the USNS Comfort, docked in New York, are designed to take casulaties off the battlefield and don’t have the kind of accomodations to segregate people who might be really contagious.
“They’re actually designed to keep diseases out, so that should there be a chemical or a radiological attack they don’t get anything inside.”

That said, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, whose state has seen hospitals overwhelmed, has asked President Trump
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to allow coronavirus patients to be treated on the Comfort. Closer to home, the Mercy's 1,000-bed floating hospital so far has only taken about two dozen non-COVID-19 patients so far.

Some things to know about the USNS Mercy:

  • The one now in LA is actually the third iteration of the ship.
  • The first one was used during World War I and during the outbreak of The Spanish Flu in 1918.
  • The second Mercy was built in Los Angeles where the current ship is currently docked, and it was used during World War II to bring soldiers back from the battlefield.
  • The deployment of the USNS Mercy is open-ended and not restricted to Los Angeles, should the number of cases dip here and jump somewhere else.

“One of things that makes these ships so useful and so versatile is that they can throw off lines, fire up the boilers and head down to another port should they need them, " says Mercogliano. "The great utility is their mobility to steam at 17-and-a-half knots and all of the sudden leave Los Angeles and be in San Francisco the next day, or seattle two days from then.”
Listen to the full interview on our local news show Take Two, which airs on 89.3 KPCC:

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