Hospital staffs stretched thin during California virus surge

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An unidentified patient uses his mobile phone while receiving oxygen on a stretcher, as Los Angeles Fire Department Paramedics monitor him outside the Emergency entrance, waiting for his room at the CHA Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center in Los Angeles Friday, Dec. 18, 2020. Increasingly desperate California hospitals are being "crushed" by soaring coronavirus infections, with one Los Angeles emergency doctor predicting that rationing of care is imminent. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

LOS ANGELES – Medical staffing is stretched increasingly thin as California hospitals scramble to find beds for patients amid an explosion of coronavirus cases that threatens to overwhelm the state's emergency care system.

As of Sunday, more than 16,840 people were hospitalized with confirmed COVID-19 infections — more than double the previous peak reached in July — and a state model that uses current data to forecast future trends shows the number could reach 75,000 by mid-January.

More than 3,610 COVID-19 patients were in intensive care units. All of Southern California and the 12-county San Joaquin Valley to the north have exhausted their regular ICU capacity, and some hospitals have begun using “surge” space. Overall, the state’s ICU capacity was just 2.1% on Sunday.

In hard-hit Los Angeles County, Nerissa Black, a nurse at Henry Mayo Newhall Hospital, estimated she's been averaging less than 10 minutes of care per patient every hour. That includes not just bedside care, but donning gear, writing up charts, reviewing lab results and conferring with doctors, she said.

“And the patients who are coming in are more sick now than they’ve ever been, because a lot of people are waiting before they get care. So when they do come in, they’re really, really sick,” Black said Sunday.

The enormous crush of cases in the last six weeks has California’s death toll spiraling ever higher. Another 161 fatalities were reported Sunday for a total of 22,593.

Across LA County at UCLA Health Santa Monica Medical Center, nurse Wendy Macedo said all 25 beds on her unit are filled with COVID-19 patients. She said a ward on another floor that had been devoted to orthopedic patients has been converted to care for people who have tested positive for the virus. Nurses are working longer shifts, and more of them, she said. There are nearly 5,550 people hospitalized with COVID-19 countywide.

“The more patients we have, the more there's a risk of making a mistake, especially if we’re rushing,” Macedo said Sunday. ”Obviously we're trying to avoid that, but we're only human."