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In a stark reminder of how overstretched hospital care has become across Los Angeles, the Army Corps of Engineers plans to send crews to the region to upgrade the oxygen-delivery systems at a handful of aging hospitals.

News of the deployment comes five days after several L.A. County hospitals declared internal disasters and temporarily turned away all ambulance traffic because their internal oxygen systems began to buckle beneath the high demand of air flow needed by patients packed into COVID-19 wards.

Dr. Christina Ghaly, L.A. County health services director, said that the buildings’ old pipes couldn’t maintain sufficient pressure and, at times, started to freeze. In a scramble, Ghaly said, some hospitals were forced to move patients to lower floors, because it’s easier to deliver oxygen there without needing pressure to push it up to higher floors.

Another oxygen-related problem — the chronic shortage of portable tanks — has also hampered hospitals abilities in recent days, county officials said. To discharge recovering patients as quickly as possible and free up space for other, sicker patients, hospitals often send patients home with oxygen tanks.

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