Mark McDermott

Local ICUs are overrun, bracing for another surge

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COVID-19 hospitalizations at the South Bay’s major medical centers increased from 48 on November 1 to 638 on January 4. Source: Los Angeles County Department of Public Health. Chart by Bernard Wong,

by Mark McDermott 

On Christmas Day, the doctors, nurses, and technicians in the ICU at Providence Little Company of Mary Medical Center tried to inject a little cheer into their workplace. They held a staff potluck, but the ICU was so busy the food went largely untouched. Seven patients passed away from COVID-19 that day.  

“We were wearing Christmas scrub hats and had a tree up,” said Dr. Anita Sircar, an infectious disease specialist. “Otherwise it was the same day as everyday.” 

Things grew so dire that week that the ICU had to make a change. In the beginning of the pandemic, every deceased COVID-19 patient was double-bagged before being sent to the morgue. But there were no longer enough bags to do that, so now only single body bags were being used. 

Now, hospitals still coping with the surge that began due to Thanksgiving gatherings are bracing for what many fear will be a much larger surge. 

All ICUs in the South Bay are over capacity and hospitals are digging deep into their surge capacities. Dr. David Rand, an infectious disease specialist at Torrance Memorial Medical Center, said the hospital is experiencing “unprecedented volumes of COVID positive patients” and most have been linked to holiday gatherings and travel. 

“COVID related admissions have been on the rise since the beginning of December and the increased demand is stretching the system,” Rand said. “Due to the size of Torrance Memorial, we have been able to create more capacity and redistribute our healthcare staff, including opening an ancillary area in the Emergency Department to increase the waiting area for COVID and respiratory patients. Our staff has done an incredible job, but the continued upward trend of hospitalizations is extremely challenging.” 

Rand implored people to follow public health orders restricting gatherings, requiring masks, and staying home as much as possible. 

According to a report in the LA Times, Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, near Torrance, is running at 150 percent of its normal capacity and nearly out of ventilators. Like other area hospitals, Harbor-UCLA has brought in refrigerated morgue trucks. 

“As hospitals go over capacity … all supplies and equipment get stretched as well, in addition to the people,” Dr. Anish Mahajan, Harbor-UCLA’s chief medical officer, told the Times. “We are basically overrun with critically ill patients…. It’s extraordinarily difficult. People are exhausted.”

After a brief New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day drop, hospitalizations for COVID-19 patients continued breaking records in L.A. County, rising to a new high of 7,898, a net addition of 201 people from the previous day.

Andrew Werts, the director of communication for Providence LIttle Company of Mary, said that the medical centers were prepared for a surge. Werts said staffing is becoming the biggest concern. 

“In the very early days of the pandemic, Providence hospitals were directed to create surge plans, reimagining all available space should we see a rising census as the virus spread,” Werts said. “Our teams have been creative in expanding patient space, identifying common areas and outpatient spaces, which we can rapidly convert for patient care. When ICUs hit capacity, we equipped other units to provide higher levels of care. ‘Capacity’ is a fluid term when we look at our options, including temporary structures. 

“Our real concern is that we don’t have the staff to care for more high-acuity patients,” Werts said. “While we’ve been able to bring in some temporary help, there will be a breaking point if the public doesn’t commit to safe practices in the coming weeks.” 

Redondo Beach Mayor Bill Brand, who has been one of the most outspoken local elected officials urging residents to adhere closely to public health orders, said people needed to understand just how close the South Bay is to the brink of even greater tragedy.  

“The South Bay is in a crisis,” Brand said. “Our hospitals are full, with ambulances waiting in hospital parking lots and very sick patients having to wait 12 hours for a bed.” 

“It’s great that vaccines are rolling out, but this is no time to relax,” Brand said. “The worst of this pandemic is happening right now and looks to continue to worsen. Please stay home and away from those not in your pod. Again, we are in crisis mode. Now is the time to triple down on our efforts to stop the spread and flatten the curve. The South Bay is not a bubble.”












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