Long Beach hospitals prep for coronavirus patients as cases spread elsewhere

Long Beach Memorial Medical Center, the city’s largest hospital, has set up a triage area outside of its emergency room to screen patients complaining of coronavirus-like symptoms, health officials said Thursday.

The effort comes as Long Beach and Los Angeles County both declared a state of emergency on Wednesday in response to the new coronavirus disease, COVID-19. As of Thursday afternoon, 11 cases have been reported in Los Angeles County. No cases have been reported in Long Beach, but city officials have begun taking preventative steps, including cleaning and disinfecting public areas at Long Beach Airport and asking workers from China to remain on their ships at the Port of Long Beach.

In a statement Thursday, MemoricalCare Chief Medical Officer Dr. James Leo said Long Beach Medical Center is screening people with symptoms outside of the emergency room and then masking those patients immediately.

Patients who are suspected of possibly having the virus would be immediately placed in isolation, he said.

“We have taken every precaution to care for patients with Novel Coronavirus (COVID19) in accordance with the Centers for Disease Control recommendations in training and equipping our staff with protective equipment, supplies and procedures to prevent the spread of infection,” he said. “Our staff have trained to care for an influx of patients, and we continue to monitor the situation and respond appropriately.”

A technician at the triage center said dozens of people have come in complaining of symptoms since the tent was set up on Wednesday, but none of those individuals have met the criteria to be screened for coronavirus.

The CDC on Wednesday broadened its criteria for coronavirus testing, urging clinicians to “use their judgment to determine if a patient has signs and symptoms compatible with COVID-19 and whether the patient should be tested.”

Previously, patients were only tested if they required hospitalization, traveled to a country with an outbreak or came into contact with an infected person.

Long Beach’s St. Mary Medical Center in a statement said it has the supplies and equipment needed to effectively care for any suspected or confirmed coronavirus patients.

“We want to assure the community that St. Mary Medical Center is closely monitoring all developments with COVID-19 and are prepared to identify, isolate, and treat any potential patient who seeks care at our facility,” the hospital said. “We are in contact with local and state health officials, as well as the (CDC) and our staff is following the latest guidance from these public health agencies.”

For Long Beach-area schools it was business as usual, though both Cal State Long Beach and the Long Beach Unified School District have put out information on their websites for parents and students.

LBUSD spokesman Chris Eftychiou said attendance has been normal at 95%. He said the district has been monitoring the local, state and national status of the virus and “remains in close touch with various agencies to provide resources to school communities and keep them apprised.”

On Thursday, public health officials confirmed four more cases of coronavirus in Los Angeles County, bringing the county’s total to 11.

All of the patients have been isolated, and health officials said they have identified people who were in close personal contact with the patients to assess and monitor them. All of the close contacts are under quarantine.

“There are no known significant exposures to the general public,” according to the county health department.

The county’s first patient with COVID-19 was diagnosed weeks ago and has since recovered.

The coronavirus has infected nearly 98,000 people worldwide and killed over 3,300, the vast majority of them in China.

U.S. health officials said they expect a far lower death rate than the World Health Organization’s international estimate of 3.4%, a rate admittedly too high because it doesn’t account for mild cases that go uncounted.

Assistant Health Secretary Brett Giroir cited a model that included mild cases to say the U.S. could expect a death rate somewhere between 0.1%, like seasonal flu, and 1%. The risk is highest for older people and anyone with conditions such as heart or lung disease, diabetes or suppressed immune systems, such as from cancer treatments.

Meanwhile, the U.S. death toll from the coronavirus climbed to 12 on Thursday, with all but one of the victims in Washington state. The number of infections swelled to over 200, scattered across 17 states. Nine of the dead were from the same suburban Seattle nursing home, now under federal investigation.

City News Service and the Associated Press 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].