During the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic, America watched as New York City was besieged by COVID-19 cases and deaths. Bodies piled up by the hundreds in refrigerated trailers and warehouses as morgues became overwhelmed with intakes. Now, the post-holiday wave is causing cases to skyrocket around the nation, and Los Angeles is seeing a COVID-19 crisis that may soon eclipse those early dark days in New York.
On Jan. 4, the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health announced that one in five LA residents tested for COVID-19 were positive. “Your bubble is not as safe as you think it is,” the department stated in a tweet. “Don’t meet up with those outside your household.”
Holiday celebrations are largely seen as the culprit behind the surge in cases, according to Los Angeles County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer.
“The increases in cases are likely to continue for weeks to come as a result of holiday and New Year’s Eve parties and returning travelers,” Ferrer said on Monday. “We’re likely to experience the worst conditions in January that we’ve faced the entire pandemic. And that’s hard to imagine.”
Other contributing factors include overall pandemic fatigue and those resisting stay-at-home orders. Los Angeles is also home to a number of essential workers, as well as socioeconomic factors that tend to disproportionately affect minorities and low-income households.
Hospitals and healthcare workers in Los Angeles are overwhelmed by COVID patients
With so many sick patients, hospitals are becoming overwhelmed. As of Jan. 5, nearly 7,900 COVID-19 patients had been hospitalized in Los Angeles County alone, with 21% in intensive care units. Hospitals saw an uptick of more than 200 patients between Monday and Tuesday, with an additional 224 deaths reported. The total number of deaths in the county now stands at more than 11,000.
Emergency room wait times for patients who aren’t experiencing life-threatening emergencies are averaging between 12-18 hours, forcing hospitals to set up cots in parking lots and other community centers.
County Supervisor Hilda Solis called the ballooning situation a “human disaster.”
“Hospitals are declaring internal disasters and having to open church gyms to serve as hospital units,” Solis told CNN. “Our healthcare workers are physically and mentally exhausted and sick.”
The overcrowding at hospitals has become so dire that ambulances with sick patients are waiting upward of four hours. Some are ultimately diverted to other hospitals and forced to wait for several more hours.
“The Emergency Medical Services are working very hard to divert ambulances or send them to hospitals that do have potential capacity to receive those patients,” Dr. Jeffrey Smith, COO of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, said. “There are situations where patients are made to wait in ambulances under the care of the paramedics. We want to make sure that time is as short as possible so they can receive the necessary care.”
“We’re trying to encourage people to not call 911 unless they really need to,” Dr. Marc Eckstein, head of the Los Angeles Fire Department EMS bureau, told ABC 7. “One of our biggest challenges right now is getting our ambulances out of the emergency department.”
“When our paramedics and EMTs transport a patient to an emergency department, there’s a transfer of care that has to take place,” Eckstein added. “Patients who are unstable or unable to be safely transferred to the waiting room or to a chair need a bed in the emergency department to be transferred to. And those beds are lacking right now.”
Supplemental oxygen shortages are also being reported, and Emergency Medical Services are being directed to administer oxygen solely to the patients in the most trouble.
“Given the acute need to conserve oxygen, effective immediately, EMS should only administer supplemental oxygen to patients with oxygen saturation below 90%,” wrote the Los Angeles County EMS in a memo last week to ambulance workers.
Things are almost certain to get worse before they get better in L.A., even with several COVID-19 vaccines currently being distributed nationwide.
“The worst is almost surely ahead of us,” Los Angeles County Health Services Director Dr. Christina Ghaly told Deadline. “Hospitalizations are at [the] highest number we’ve seen yet during the pandemic, and it just continues to grow and grow.” Three-quarters of ICU patients are being treated for COVID-19, according to Ghaly.
The outlook is ominous going forward. Even those who mask up and practice responsible social distancing measures are at increased risk.
“Community transmission rates are so high that you run the risk of transmission whenever you leave your home,” Ferrer said.