‘It’s all hands on deck right now’; Long Beach is running out of ICU beds and staff to tend them

As coronavirus cases continue to reach unprecedented levels, intensive care units around Long Beach are near capacity, packed mostly with COVID-19 patients.

That, coupled with overworked staff, will undoubtedly lead to an increased number of deaths in coming days, health officials warn.

“It’s all hands on deck right now and everyone is very focused,” Jennifer Bayer, a spokeswoman for Lakewood Regional and Los Alamitos medical centers, said. “Every hospital across the board is experiencing this surge.”

As of Monday evening, the ICUs in Long Beach’s five local hospitals were 98.5% full, with more than 60% of beds filled with COVID-confirmed patients, according to a spokesperson for the city. It’s not clear how many beds those hospitals have among them. Earlier this month, they had 182, but city staff did not know how many beds have been added since then.

Since then, county officials told the five facilities, as well as all hospitals across Los Angeles and Orange county, to activate surge plans and consider alternative treatment plans, according to the city of Long Beach.

Surge plans often include converting portions of other hospital departments, including emergency rooms, to makeshift ICUs and setting up field medical tents in parking lots.

“Our emergency rooms cannot keep up when they are functioning as an ICU,” Christina Gahly, the director of the county Department of Health Services, said during a briefing last week. “Our operating rooms cannot perform as many surgeries as they should when those staff are needed to care for COVID patients.”

A lack of space is not the only pressing issue facing hospitals: Keeping facilities adequately staffed is becoming more of a challenge statewide by the day. In fact, state officials are desperate to find 3,000 temporary medical workers to meet demand and have begun reaching out to foreign partners in places like Australia and Taiwan to find them, the Associated Press reports.

Staffing agencies often provide California hospitals with personnel during peaks such as flu season due to the state’s strict nurse-to-patient ratios, which are being waived at many hospitals in an attempt to keep up with patient load surges. But the pool of travel nurses has shrunk as demand for them increased 44% over the last month.

State health officials recently announced that the Southern California region is at 0% ICU capacity, but that doesn’t mean zero beds are available because the state uses a weighted formula to calculate that percentage in an effort to make sure some ICU beds are available for non-COVID patients, according to the Los Angeles Times. For consistency, city staff uses the same formula.

Either way, the percentage fluctuates frequently as patients are downgraded or discharged and others are admitted. With cases still surging, the pressure on local hospitals isn’t likely to let up any time soon.

On Monday, Long Beach reported 1,659 new cases and eight new deaths since Friday, bringing total fatalities to 319. Hospitalizations also increased from 337 to 367.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect the city’s method of calculating ICU capacity.

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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.