After months of delays, Community Hospital Long Beach has been granted a license from the state health department and can open, alleviating some pressure on the area’s overwhelmed health system, the hospital’s operator announced today.

The hospital will open on Monday with 11 intensive care unit beds along with space for 40 other patients who aren’t as critically ill, according to operator Molina, Wu, Network.

That space is expected to be filled with non-coronavirus patients transferred from other facilities, which are struggling to keep up with the number of people arriving to be treated for COVID-19.

The opening comes at a time when ICUs at hospitals countywide are essentially full and the Southern California region is dangerously close to being out of beds.

As of Tuesday, 70% of local ICU beds were being used just by coronavirus patients, according to Long Beach Health Director Kelly Colopy.

Getting Community Hospital back online is a critical step in helping bear that burden, according to Mayor Robert Garcia.

“We expect the hospital reopening to have an immediate impact on local capacity and our ability to save lives,” he said in a statement.

The area’s emergency rooms also are bogged down, with some space having been converted to makeshift ICUs. The Community Hospital emergency department is not expected to open until March.

Community Hospital will not be accepting walk-ins or those with confirmed cases of COVID-19, according to Molina, Wu, Network. The facility, instead, will work with surrounding hospitals and nursing facilities to transfer non-coronavirus patients and free up beds for those infected with the virus.

“We’re on track to expand services within the next 90 days,” said Molina, Wu, Network CEO Virg Narbutas.

As other services come online in the coming months, more beds will be added, according to the operator.

While hospitals struggle to staff beds across the state, Community Hospital has nearly 140 staff at various stages of onboarding, including doctors, nurses, administrators and facilities personnel, hospital spokesperson Brandon Dowling said.

“While [Community Hospital] cannot possibly solve the issue of overcrowding, we are happy that we can lend our efforts,” John Molina, partner at Molina, Wu, Network said in an email Thursday. “Our plan is to begin slowly and increase our volume of beds and patients as we are able to continue to recruit staff.”

Over the last 18 months, beginning even before officially signing its contract with the city for a long-term lease of the hospital, Molina, Wu, Network has invested $6 million bringing the facility up to snuff, including deferred maintenance, equipment replacement, supplies, utility systems, and facade and interior room updates, according to the operator.

Fourth District Councilman Daryl Supernaw’s office has also pitched in $250,000 for critical elevator repairs. The city has yet to cover any other costs associated with reopening Community Hospital, according to Long Beach Economic Development Director John Keisler.

The hospital was shuttered in summer 2018 after it was found to be sitting on an active earthquake fault line and the previous operator, MemorialCare Health System, deemed the necessary retrofits too costly to keep the facility open.

In the lease agreement approved by city council over one year ago, Molina, Wu, Network will be reimbursed around 50% of seismic construction costs for 15 years—up to $1 million for the first five years and up to $2 million for the remaining 10. According to Keisler, Molina, Wu, Network has submitted its first year report, which includes over $2 million worth of seismic-related expenses, meaning the city is likely to reimburse the full $1 million.

The facility meets all current seismic requirements and Molina, Wu, Network is working with state regulators to develop a seismic compliance plan to meet more comprehensive standards by Jan. 1, 2025, a deadline set by state Senate Bill 1953, which was introduced weeks after the Northridge earthquake 26 years ago. Molina, Wu, Network commissioned a study to determine the total cost of the retrofit but the final report has not been completed, Dowling said.

The road to reopening Community Hospital was a long one, especially given the challenges the health system has faced most of the year.

In March, during the early days of the pandemic, a special order from Gov. Gavin Newsom almost reopened Community Hospital temporarily in anticipation of a surge of cases. However, the plan was short-lived and fizzled out after a couple days due to delays in state licensing.

In early April, Molina, Wu, Network announced it hired a staff of 100 employees to maintain coverage of the ICU unit and stocked more than $2 million worth of medical supplies in anticipation of state approval that never came.

Little more than a week later, the operator announced it was days away from opening, noting that it upped staffing to around 125 and that, at the request of the governor, it would likely accept some COVID-19 patients. Again, the state license never materialized.

During the summer surge of coronavirus cases, the facility remained closed, as Molina, Wu, Network continued working toward state approval.

As other area hospitals began to fill up in late November and into December, state officials continued to review the reopening of the facility. As temporary medical tents went up in the parking lots of other hospitals and refrigerated trucks were brought in to store an overflow of bodies, the state health department did not provide details related to the cause of the delays when questioned by the Post.

Now, in the darkest days of the pandemic yet, the historic hospital can finally treat patients.

Editor’s note: John Molina—of Molina, Wu, Network—is the primary investor in the parent company that owns the Long Beach Post. He has no influence in editorial decisions. Read more about the Post’s ownership here.

Brandon Richardson is a reporter and photojournalist for the Long Beach Post and Long Beach Business Journal.