A former oil supertanker that became the U.S. Navy's lead floating hospital set sail late Monday from its home port in San Diego. The white-hulled USNS Mercy's next stop: the Port of Los Angeles, where it is to help relieve the strain being put on that city's hospitals by the coronavirus pandemic.

"We are, as the USNS Mercy's motto says, steaming to assist," said Rear Adm. Tim Weber, commander of Naval Medical Forces Pacific, shortly before the ship embarked. "In a matter of days we have assembled an incredible crew of more than 800 medical professionals who embark on the Mercy to lift the burden off local hospitals so they can focus on caring for patients with COVID-19."

But the hospital ship won't be admitting patients infected with the coronavirus.

*We are NOT deploying to treat COVID-19 cases," said the ship's commanding officer, Capt. John Rotruck, at a briefing with reporters. He added that all those coming on board will first have to fill out coronavirus screening questionnaires and, if needed, have their temperatures taken.

"If we did wind up with somebody that we either diagnosed as COVID-19 or thought was highly likely," Rotruck said, "we would be looking to send them off the ship and do appropriate preventative measures for any contact they had."

Some 60 volunteer reservists who are medical professionals will join active duty Navy personnel on the 44-year-old ship, which has 1,000 beds and a dozen fully equipped operating rooms.

"Our intention is just to pull in pier side and just transport patients by ground into the hospital ship," said Rotruck. "We expect to be there within the week, and we anticipate being able to begin taking patients the day after we arrive. We definitely have a sense of urgency."

The ship normally deploys to war zones to treat traumatic injuries, and while Rotruck noted it has intensive care units and the capacity for emergency surgical operations, "we are not going to be doing obstetric care or pediatric care on the ship."

The ship had initially been expected to sail for Seattle, which has had a high number of COVID-19 cases. But the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, which is overseeing the operation, decided Los Angeles would be its first destination.

"Even though there are more cases right now in Washington, the projected needs for beds in California is five times more than that of Washington," Pete Gaynor, the Federal Emergency Management Agency's administrator, told the news website Military.com on Sunday.

The ship's first mission in the coronavirus pandemic appears open-ended. "We are prepared to stay as long as necessary in Los Angeles," said mission commander Capt. Dan Cobian, "and prepared to move on to whatever port or destination that FEMA directs."

The East Coast counterpart of the Mercy, the USNS Comfort, is currently under preparations to sail from Norfolk, Va., to New York City for similar duties. But Navy officials say it could be several weeks before the Comfort docks there.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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