Just 30 ICU beds remain in LA County as medical officials prepare to make tough decisions

A Long Beach internist who has practiced medicine in hospitals and nursing homes for 19 years said nothing has prepared him for the unprecedented number of COVID-19 patients he’s now treating on the front line.

The situation has gotten so bad that Dr. Ben Zandpour, who serves as a medical director for two Long Beach-area nursing homes, said some facilities have had to make tough decisions on whether to send residents to the emergency room and risk them dying while waiting for an available bed.

“The hospitals are so full, that if a nursing home has a patient who looks like he might not make it, they’re saying maybe this patient should just pass away in the comfort of the nursing home,” he said. “It’s a really tough situation. And it’s something I’ve never seen in my 20 years in medicine.”

Local hospitals are enacting surge plans as county officials warn the worst is yet to come.

Days before Christmas, just 30 intensive care unit beds remain open in all of Los Angeles County, health officials said Monday. They urged everyone to stay at home and cancel any holiday plans with people outside of their household as COVID-19 cases continues to climb.

The overall number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 again swelled to a new record in the county on Monday with 5,709 patients, up from 5,549 a day earlier. Based on the massive amount of people testing positive for coronavirus over the past few weeks, county officials say that number could soon swell to over 7,000.

Zandpour said he’s most concerned about a shortage in staffing as many nurses and doctors have missed work as they fall sick with COVID.

Zandpour contracted COVID about a month ago and fortunately had a mild to moderate case, he said. He was back at work within two weeks.

“It’s going to be huge if we run out of nursing care,” he said. “The nurses, the aides, the janitorial teams…they are the real heroes.”

In a news conference on Monday, County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer pleaded with people to stay home for holidays as the county is entering “a very dangerous and unpredictable period.”

“Another spike in cases from the winter holidays will be disastrous for our hospital system and ultimately mean many more people simply won’t be with us in 2021,” Ferrer said.

Already, the number of available ICU beds across the county was down to just 30, said Dr. Christina Ghaly, LA County Health Services director.

Ghaly said she’s never seen a situation like this that’s threatening to overwhelm such a broad swath of hospitals across the region. In comparison, she said, the average number of hospitalizations in flu season is about 200 new patients a day. Local hospitals are now seeing about 700 new COVID-19 patients a day.

All of the normal tactics used to handle a surge of patients involve drawing resources from other areas, but, Ghaly said, that is “not possible now because this is affecting hospitals across the entire state, and the nation, and frankly, the world.”

The situation is so strained that Ghaly urged people not to seek emergency care at a hospital unless they truly have an emergency.

Hospitals are not yet rationing care, Ghaly said, but they should all have a plan in place and every resident should be staying home as much as possible to try to avoid that dire outcome.

“If you’re still out there shopping for your loved ones for this holiday season or you’re planning a holiday get together, then you are missing the gravity of the situation that is affecting hospitals across Los Angeles County and California and this nation,” she said.

In a disturbing trend, Zandpour said he’s noticed more younger patients who are experiencing blood clotting problems, strokes and other serious complications.

On Saturday, he said he treated five COVID-19 patients in one day. They were ages 42, 45, 50, 56 and 73.

Dr. Ben Zandpour, a Long Beach-based internist, wears protective equipment to treat COVID-19 patients.

Zandpour said he hopes people will heed health warnings over the holidays.

“My message to the general public is to please take this seriously and continue to try to be safe,” he said. “Wear a mask as much as possible. We all need to take care of each other.”

Dr. Ben Zandpour is a Long Beach-based internist who has worked at several area hospitals.

Some local hospitals, meanwhile, have already enacted their surge plans.

“We are at capacity however it changes every hour as we discharge people back home,” said Christina Zicklin, spokeswoman for St. Mary Medical Center. “We ask the community to continue to follow CDC guidelines to help slow the spread of this virus.”

Richele Steele, a spokeswoman for Long Beach Memorial Medical Center, said the hospital continues to see a significant increase in COVID patients.

“Our capacity is monitored frequently, and we are safely treating and caring for all patients as we move through our surge plan,” she said. “However, the situation is fluid and changes by the hour, and capacity could be reached. Should we reach capacity, we have plans in place and resources lined up to enable us to address the situation.”

Long Beach on Monday reported 1,659 new COVID-19 cases since Friday for a total of 26,281 cases. The city reported eight new deaths for a total of 319 fatalities, while 367 people were hospitalized in five area hospitals, up from 337 on Friday.

– Staff writer Brandon Richardson contributed to this report 

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Kelly Puente is an award-winning general assignment and special projects reporter at the Long Beach Post. She has worked as a journalist in Long Beach since 2006, covering everything from education and crime to courts and breaking news. Kelly previously worked at the Long Beach Press-Telegram and the Orange County Register before joining the Post in 2018. She is currently pursuing a master’s degree in public policy and administration at Cal State Long Beach. Reach her at [email protected].