The US Department of Defence (DoD) is looking to prepare the US Navy hospital ships USNS Mercy and USNS Comfort to assist in the response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Speaking to reporters yesterday, Secretary of Defence Mark Esper said that the navy was preparing to get the ships ready to deploy in case they are needed to support the DoD’s wider Covid-19 response effort.

Esper said: “We’ve already given orders to the Navy a few days ago to lean forward, in terms of getting them ready to deploy.”

USNS Mercy is currently in port, while maintenance is currently underway on USNS Comfort. The shops are currently deployed on the US West and East Coast respectively.

As the ships are designed primarily to treat trauma patients, not infectious diseases, Esper said they would likely be used to reduce the pressure of trauma patients on coastal hospitals.

Esper said: “They don’t have necessarily the space, the segregated spaces you need to deal with infectious diseases. And so one of the ways by which you could use either field hospitals, the hospital ships or things in between is to take the pressure off of civilian hospitals when it comes to trauma cases, is to open up civilian hospital rooms for infectious diseases.”

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Alongside the hospital ships, the DoD is also looking at how it could deploy military field hospitals to fill in a similar role taking trauma patients and allowing existing hospitals to focus on infectious disease cases.

Esper said that DoD field hospitals if necessary would likely be based near hospitals to alleviate the pressure of trauma patients.

Esper said: “So ideally what you would do is locate it somewhere, maybe next to a hospital, whereas trauma patients come in, instead of going into the hospital, they would go into the field hospital, where we could treat the broken legs, the lacerations, the falling down, hit-your-head type of stuff. We can handle them in our big open bays, we have our doctors that can do that.

“And if you come in for a Covid, we’ve now freed up rooms for you to go inside the hospital, where you have segregated rooms with bathrooms and all those things you need to treat infectious patients.”

USNS Mercy and USNS Comfort both have the capacity to carry one thousand beds, with the ability to treat up to 80 intensive care patients at any given time. Both ships also have 12 fully-fitted operating theatres to treat the most severe trauma cases.

The two ships were originally built as tankers in the 1970s but were acquired by the US Navy and converted into hospital vessels in the 1980s.