Hospital ship USNS Mercy to head for Seattle on Monday, US defense officials say

The hospital ship USNS Mercy will set sail Monday for the Seattle area, one of the regions hardest-hit by the coronavirus outbreak, U.S. defense officials told Fox News on Thursday.

The news came a day after Defense Secretary Mark Esper said preparations for the deployment of both the Mercy and the USNS Comfort would be expedited given the urgency with which the ships are needed in their destination areas.

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The Comfort, based in Norfolk, Va., is scheduled to deploy to New York City, possibly as soon as April 2 after initially being set to arrive in mid-April, according to Navy officials. The ship has been undergoing extensive maintenance in Virginia, delaying its availability, but top Pentagon officials say they have expedited measures to ready the vessel.

The Mercy is currently docked in San Diego, Calif.

Both ships will carry 750 beds (75 percent of normal capacity) to house trauma patients to reduce the pressure on local hospitals as they deal with the coronavirus outbreak.  

The ships also will carry "three times as many medical staffing as normal," a senior U.S. defense official told Fox News.

The USNS Mercy, a Navy hospital ship, is seen docked at Naval Base San Diego Wednesday, March 18, 2020, in San Diego. (Associated Press)

The USNS Mercy, a Navy hospital ship, is seen docked at Naval Base San Diego Wednesday, March 18, 2020, in San Diego. (Associated Press)

The surgeon general of the U.S. Navy said Thursday afternoon that medical staffing aboard both hospital ships was set to begin earlier in the day.

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All staff and crew members will undergo screening for coronavirus ahead of boarding the vessels, Rear Adm. Bruce Gillingham told reporters on a video-teleconference call at the Pentagon.

As of late Thursday, New York state had 5,711 confirmed cases of coronavirus, the highest number in the nation, while Washington state had 1,376 confirmed cases of the virus. But Washington state has seen 74 fatalities and New York state has seen 38, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center.