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With intensive care units across California rapidly filling with COVID-19 patients, hospitals have a limited number of tools available to free up more capacity in the coming weeks as cases are expected to surge.

Back in the spring, the government opened a so-called “surge” hospital in Los Angeles and even docked a Navy medical ship in San Pedro harbor to take overflow patients if medical centers filled up. But officials found that those supplemental facilities did not treat many patients and did not provide the same level of care as traditional hospitals.

“Hospital ships are wonderful if you’re a 23-year-old wounded sailor. But it’s no place to take care of ICU patients” sick with COVID-19, said Dr. George Rutherford, an epidemiologist and infectious-diseases expert at UC San Francisco. “If they need to be in the ICU, they need to be in the ICU.”

So in the coming weeks in L.A. County, hospitals will try to choreograph their staffing to best meet the needs of critically ill patients, some of whom still might have to be sent to other areas of the hospital that don’t typically treat ICU cases.

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