‘Stretched to the limit’: L.A. County hospitals slammed, face tough decisions in COVID-19 surge heading into holidays

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Available hospital and intensive care unit beds in Los Angeles County continued to plummet to dangerous levels as the county on Monday continued its record-setting trend for coronavirus hospitalizations.

On Monday, more than 5,700 people were hospitalized for COVID-19 in the nation’s most populous county — 21% of whom are in intensive care units, health officials announced. That’s up from the previous day’s record of 5,549 hospitalizations.

As of Monday morning, the county had only 22 available ICU beds, officials with the Department of Health Services said, as they urged everyone to stay at home and cancel any holiday plans with people outside of their household as COVID-19 cases continue to surge.

The number of hospitalizations jumped by 481% between Nov. 9 and Dec. 17, along with a 369% increase in average daily deaths during that same time period, according to county health officials.

Health Services Director Dr. Christina Ghaly said she’s never seen a situation like this that’s threatening to overwhelm such a broad swath of hospitals across the region. In comparison, she said, the average number of hospitalizations in flu season is about 200 new patients a day. Now, local hospitals are seeing about 700 new COVID-19 patients a day.

The situation is so strained that Ghaly urged people not to seek emergency care at a hospital unless they truly have an emergency. She said hospitals are not rationing care but should have a plan in place.

“[What] people need to remember is that hospitals have finite resources,” she said. “Let’s all do everything we can to avoid attacking them to a greater extent than they’re already taxed.”

With overcrowded hospitals already scrambling to add more beds, health officials decried residents who flocked to shopping centers over the weekend and ate on restaurant patios in defiance of infection-control regulations.

“If you’re still out there shopping for your loved ones for this holiday season or you’re planning a holiday get together, then you are missing the gravity of the situation that is affecting hospitals across Los Angeles County and California and this nation,” Ghaly said. “People are very sick in the hospital, they are dying there.”

Meanwhile, the average daily number of new infections in the county has nearly tripled over the last three weeks alone.

Now, as the county’s case total tops 630,000, the situation has become dire.

“Unfortunately we’ve entered a very dangerous and unpredictable period because our hospitals and our health care workers are overwhelmed,” L.A. County Health Director Barbara Ferrer said during a virtual press briefing on Monday. “It could very well be that our current pace of cases combined with a hospital network that’s under siege, the total number of deaths could soar before the end of the year.”

The health department confirmed 11,271 new coronavirus cases and 56 additional fatalities Monday, bringing the COVID-19 death toll to 8,931. 

Based on the rate of people testing positive for coronavirus over the past few weeks, county officials say the number of daily hospitalizations could soon swell to over 7,000. At that rate, Ferrer said, later “we could see 110 people die each day.”

“Another spike in cases from the winter holidays will be disastrous for our hospital system and ultimately mean many more people simply won’t be with us in 2021,” Ferrer said. “As we approach the holidays, we really can’t afford to repeat the mistakes of Thanksgiving … The strategy of testing in order to gather is flawed. A person is negative, only at the time, they got tested … By the time you get a negative test result, you may no longer be negative.”

Ferrer also expressed frustration at continued violations of protocols by restaurants that continue to allow customers to order take-out food, then sit on their patios to eat, despite a ban on outdoor dining.

“I’m troubled that this is still the conversation because our numbers are so horrific in the county,” she said. “Please, by all means, frequent our restaurants, pick up the food, take it out and take it home so that you can eat it with your immediate household members. That’s what we’re asking for.”

Ferrer also lamented the increased harassment of public health inspectors who are out on the job, trying to enforce the rules.

“I don’t think we’ve ever had as much harassment as the inspectors are experiencing now,” she said. “It’s really inappropriate there’d be harassment of public health people just trying to do their job.”

Meanwhile, help is on the way with thousands of more COVID-19 vaccines on their way to the county this week, although it will still be several weeks until the shots become available to the general public.

Ferrer said another 48,750 doses of the Pfizer vaccine are expected to arrive later this week. The county also expects to receive 116,600 doses of the newly approved Moderna vaccine this week.

The Pfizer vaccines will continue to be distributed to hospitals for frontline health care workers. 

The Moderna vaccine, which does not need to be stored in an ultra-cold freezer like the Pfizer vaccine, will be sent to 338 skilled nursing facilities across the county, where residents and staff will receive doses. Paramedics, emergency medical technicians and health care workers who are administering the vaccines will also receive the Moderna vaccine.

“If we don’t change how we’re going to celebrate the winter holidays, we’ll experience a surge on top of a surge on top of a surge,” Ferrer said. “Our hospitals are already over capacity, and the high quality medical care we’re accustomed to in L.A. County is beginning to be compromised as our frontline health care workers are beyond stretched to the limit.”

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