‘It’s killing us’: Doctors, nurses resigned on Christmas morning as COVID cases continue to rise

A man hopped on one foot toward the makeshift entrance to the emergency room at Long Beach Memorial.

“I broke a toe,” he said.

“Any fever?” asked a nurse wrapped in a protective gown that looked like a garbage bag.

He shook his head, and she pointed him to the left, past a collection of wheelchairs, yellow buckets, mops and a few vacuum-like contraptions.

Those with COVID-19 symptoms are ushered to the right, where they receive a rapid test and line up in chairs spaced several feet apart. A man in sweats sat in one chair, doubled over.

This triage area is housed in a giant tent in the parking lot with tunnels and exam rooms reminiscent of the 1970s show “M*A*S*H,” minus the chaos. It was calm here, almost quiet—except for the occasional sound of sirens.

On this Christmas morning, nurses, techs and doctors are tending to the sick, mending wounds and illness often borne from bad decisions.

This year is different, of course.

“It’s killing us,” said one of the nurses standing guard at Memorial, when asked if she’s frustrated by the public’s seeming indifference to health orders. “It’s so simple. Just wear a mask, wash your hands. It’s simple. It doesn’t have to be this way.”

Long Beach Memorial sets up tents in the back of the hospital due to the COVID-19 pandemic in Long Beach Friday, Dec. 11, 2020. Photo by Thomas R. Cordova.

Like most medical facilities across the region, Memorial is full. Though the situation is fluid, there is no room in the hospital, including the intensive care units and emergency department, staff said.

Every day seems to bring a new record. Christmas Eve was no exception: County health officials reported a record 148 deaths in one day and nearly 6,500 people in the hospital. As of Thursday, there were just 63 intensive care unit beds available in the entire county, with a population of 13 million.

“This was avoidable,” Christina Ghaly, director of the Department of Health Services, said earlier this week.

Ghaly and others in charge have grown increasingly, and uncharacteristically, graphic and blunt in their assessment of what’s happening in the region’s hospitals. Medical staff, she said, are watching people die as COVID “pushes the air out of their lungs,” and anyone not following health orders could be a “silent killer.”

Those working in hospitals are growing discouraged and outraged, she said, as they see jammed malls, people shopping and strolling without masks and playgrounds that are full of kids.

The atmosphere at local facilities on Christmas morning reflected more resignation than chaos—at least by outside appearances. At Memorial, a nurse wearing a headband adorned with two spring-loaded Santa heads assessed the wife of a man who has had difficulty breathing. Another technician in scrubs brought over a handful of candy canes and wished a colleague Merry Christmas.

A few miles south at the emergency triage area at St. Mary Medical Center, a technician shook his head.

“Exhausted,” is all he says, walking past yellow block letters that spell “Heroes work here” at the entrance. He and others said they expect tomorrow to be much worse; no one wants to come to the E.R. on Christmas day unless they really have to.

Nearby at Los Alamitos Medical Center—part of the hospital network that serves Long Beach—firefighter-paramedics from different counties chatted near ambulances and fire engines. One of them was called into work just this morning.

Ambulances line up outside Los Alamitos Medical Center on Friday, Dec. 25, 2020. Photo by Sebastian Echeverry.

Groans from patients could be heard along outdoor tented corridors adorned with signs that said “Happy Holidays.”

A nurse with heavy eyes said the hospital had transformed multiple floors into emergency rooms. One unit was filled with COVID patients.

“We have to do everything we can to help the nurses here,” she said, admitting it’s not easy to be alone and away from family.

Leaders, however, fear that the gatherings and celebrations taking place today and over the next week will only prolong and exacerbate the carnage from a virus that has no cure.

The current caseloads—close to 14,000 new cases were reported Thursday—are directly tied to similar gatherings that happened a month ago during Thanksgiving, health officials said.

“These people did not need to die,” Ghaly said.

Staff writer Sebastian Echeverry contributed to this report.

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Melissa has been a journalist for over two decades, starting her career as a reporter covering health and religion and moving into local news. She has worked as an editor for eight years, including seven years at the Press Telegram before joining the Long Beach Post in June 2018. She also serves as a part-time lecturer at Cal State Long Beach where she teaches multimedia journalism and writing.