As Long Beach ICUs fill up, hospital staff worry COVID-19 will keep surging

Long Beach area health care workers are trying to keep their heads above water as a rising tide of COVID-19 patients has flooded some hospitals in the state and threatens to do the same locally if the surge of new coronavirus cases doesn’t end.

“We’re very busy right now,” said Dr. Ali Jamehdor, medical director of the Dignity Health – St. Mary Medical Center emergency department. “The ICU is getting full, the nurses are busting their butts and everyone is putting in extra time to deal with the rush.”

Due to rapidly increasing COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations during what is already a busy time of year for hospitals, more than 83% of the 182 ICU beds in the Long Beach area are being used right now, with nearly 41% occupied with COVID-19 patients, according to data provided by the city.

As of Monday, 68% of the area’s 1,211 non-ICU beds were also being used, 21% by coronavirus patients. In the area that includes the Long Beach Medical Center campus, and the St. Mary, College, Lakewood Regional and Los Alamitos medical centers, 274 patients are hospitalized with coronavirus, 74 of whom are in the ICU.

“I try not to have the ‘Chicken Little’ mentality, crying that the sky is falling, but the ICUs are certainly fuller now than they were at the same time last year,” Jamehdor said. “It’s worrisome.”

To cope with the strain, St. Mary has already increased its ICU capacity from 38 to 45 beds. And the hospital announced today it is suspending elective surgeries to “focus our team and resources on caring for those with critical health needs”—a drastic step for hospitals that rely on elective surgeries for income. Long Beach Memorial halted elective surgeries last week.

At Memorial, spokeswoman Richele Steele said the hospital currently has adequate staffing and surge plans in place to quickly increase critical care capacity if needed, but she said the hospital is also working on backup options should the need arise.

“We’re building a plan and exploring additional state, local and private resources to respond to the ever-changing needs,” Steele said in an email. “We will lean on our partnership with the state and county as we look for additional resources.”

Through a spokesperson, Lakewood Regional and Los Alamitos said they, too, were “closely monitoring the census in our hospitals and making rapid adjustments as needed.”

While Long Beach area hospitals are not yet overwhelmed, other LA County facilities are being hit much harder. Many more hospitals than normal are diverting ambulances because of overcrowded emergency rooms, Christina Ghaly, director of the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services, said on Monday.

If nearby facilities reach capacity, Jamehdor said there is a possibility that patients may be transferred to Long Beach hospitals, compounding the area’s own surge.

“We have surge plans where if we do start to see an influx of patients, a call goes out to providers to come in and provide assistance,” Jamehdor said. However, if ICU beds fill up and portions of the ER are converted to surge capacity, it could have a dramatic impact on already inundated ERs and the amount of time ambulances are left waiting trying to offload patients.

While ambulance offload times have not yet been affected, Jamehdor said the area’s hospitals have been slammed with a constant stream of people. Due to the hospital’s daily evaluation of staffing needs and rapid triage, Jamehdor said patient wait times have actually gone down during the surge, but some facilities have had to occasionally close their emergency rooms and divert ambulances.

“It has happened a few times in the last week,” he said.

Jamehdor said he’s “cautiously optimistic” his hospital will be able to weather the flood of coronavirus patients. “Of course, if another wave comes after Christmas, that becomes more worrisome.”

Health officials have warned that the current surge of COVID-19 cases linked to Thanksgiving could be compounded by another surge from Christmas gatherings—something that could overwhelm the local and statewide health care system.

Already, the total percentage of available ICU beds across all of Southern California has hit a low of 1.7%,  Gov. Gavin Newsom said Tuesday. Statewide that percentage is 5.7%.

The San Joaquin Valley region reached 0% capacity over the weekend but, through surge measures, was able to increase to 1.7%.

“There is a light at the end of the tunnel,” Jamehdor said, noting the arrival of the COVID-19 vaccine in the county this week. But he also cautioned residents to not become complacent.

“Wear your mask and do not get together in large groups,” he said. “I know it’s been a super rough year and people look for time to see loved ones. But just for this one year, if we can take a little pause from these gatherings, we can get through this.”

Post reporter Kelly Puente contributed to this report.

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Brandon Richardson is a business reporter, covering everything from real estate and healthcare to the airport and port to city hall and the economy. He is a Long Beach native who has been with the Business Journal since graduating from Long Beach City College in spring 2016 with an associate’s degree in journalism. He is an avid record collector and concert goer.