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In Los Angeles County, Nearly 10 People Die Of COVID-19 Each Hour

NOEL KING, HOST:

Health officials in Southern California say COVID-19 is out of control there. Jackie Fortier with member station KPCC has this report on struggling hospitals.

JACKIE FORTIER, BYLINE: In LA County, more than 8,000 people are in the hospital right now with COVID-19. Many hospitals have set up triage tents outside to keep patients from flooding the emergency room, especially those arriving in ambulances. Intensive care beds have been full for weeks. Now patients are being put in overflow areas like operating recovery rooms, the hospital auditorium, even the gift shop. County health director Barbara Ferrer says about 15,000 Angelenos are testing positive every day.

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BARBARA FERRER: And this is translating into a disastrous increase in the number of people with severe COVID-19 symptoms being sent to our hospitals.

FORTIER: This is the worst the pandemic has ever been in LA County. In the first seven days of the New Year, 1,200 more people have died.

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FERRER: Hospitals are accepting more patients than they can discharge, and this is causing a huge strain on our emergency medical system.

FORTIER: It's gotten so bad that this week, California issued a statewide order that hospitals that have room must accept patients from other hospitals that have maxed out their intensive care beds. That's the case at Memorial Hospital of Gardena in LA County. Chief Medical Officer Kevan Metcalfe says they have 30 ICU patients, but just 10 ICU beds.

KEVAN METCALFE: We're really trying to work hard with County EMS to stop sending ambulances to my hospital because I'm over capacity triple the normal level, whereas the hospital down the street may only be at 100% capacity.

FORTIER: Metcalfe says because COVID patients have injured lungs, most of them need 100% oxygen, for days. That's quickly depleting the hospital's supply. In a way, oxygen has become the new ventilator, a scarce resource in the fight to save lives.

METCALFE: We're not rationing it. But I can tell you I've gone from monthly deliveries to every three days, and I predict that I'll be every day if this thing gets worse. This is every hospital in Southern California, and the oxygen suppliers are getting concerned.

FORTIER: But Metcalfe says the biggest problem is finding enough medical staff to take care of so many extremely sick patients.

METCALFE: There's not enough nurses. So I'm beg, borrowing and stealing to find nurses anywhere I can find them.

FORTIER: Usually, a temporary nurse costs $80 an hour, but now Metcalfe has to pay two or even $300 an hour. Hospitals are also having to come up with plans for crisis standards of care in case they get so overwhelmed that staffers have to start prioritizing resources. Metcalfe says it's based on how likely patients are to survive.

METCALFE: Whether or not there's an ICU bed available or whether there's a respirator available - we haven't had to make those decisions yet. But certainly, if this thing gets worse, which we predict it may, those things have to be vetted and potentially implemented.

FORTIER: Now that it's been two weeks since Christmas, health officials say a surge tied to the winter holidays is coming. And they estimate another thousand people will soon need a hospital bed in LA County. And that's left hospital workers asking, how much more can they take?

For NPR News, I'm Jackie Fortier in Los Angeles. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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