Frustrated hospital staff, ICU beds running low, and possibly rough January: LA doctor on COVID

Written by Amy Ta, produced by Nihar Patel

A medical center offers COVID-19 testing with results in less than 24 hours, Culver City, Los Angeles, California. December 7, 2020. Photo by Amy Ta/KCRW

LA County experienced more than 10,000 new COVID cases on Sunday. That’s double the number of new cases reported just a week ago. All of Southern California is now under a state-issued stay-at-home order because ICU capacity in the region has shrunk to below 15%. While the death rate hasn’t reached its peak during the summer, the more hospital capacity shrinks, the more likely the death rate is to increase.

Mayor Eric Garcetti on Friday warned, “This is the greatest threat to life to Los Angeles that we have ever faced. And current levels of infection won’t just mean COVID deaths, it will mean overwhelmed hospitals, so that people who have other life-threatening health conditions might not get in or will be competing for those very same beds that COVID-19 patients need. People with strokes and heart attacks and other emergencies unable to get care. That’s why the state is using that metric.”

Dr. Brad Spellberg, Chief Medical Officer at the LA County + USC Medical Center, tells KCRW that hospital staff are frustrated. “We have people with families who are putting themselves at risk, going into these rooms, taking care of these patients. And then you drive home, or you drive to work, and you see people not taking it seriously. Or you turn on the news and you see people not taking it seriously. It’s very frustrating.”

He says he hopes the new stay-at-home order will make a dent, as there are limited mitigation tools right now. “Physical distancing, washing your hands, avoiding crowds, do not get into groups, and wearing the masks — those are the tools we have. And if people don’t take those seriously, we’re not going to make it to the point where we have widespread vaccine availability before the health care system sort of crashes inwards.”

He says success depends on ICU bed availability, and that his hospital has more space in regular ward beds, but they are running out of ICU beds. “It is when the ICU becomes completely overwhelmed, that’s when the wheels start falling off the wagon.”

Spellberg also stresses that what’s really important is the number of trained hospital staff.

Right now LA is seeing the effects of Thanksgiving and things will keep getting worse over the next one to two weeks, he says.

“If people are as lackadaisical about the December holidays as they were about the November one, I’m expecting a very, very rough January.”

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