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Overwhelmed L.A. hospitals brace for post-Christmas COVID wave

A COVID-19 patient is treated in the ICU at Loma Linda University Medical Center.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

California health officials are bracing for the potential for a new round of infections from Christmas gatherings, though it could take several weeks to determine how bad such a wave would be.

A surge of COVID-19 fueled by Thanksgiving gatherings have pushed hospitals across Southern California to the breaking point, with intensive care units having few or no available beds, facilities running low on oxygen and other supplies and patients waiting hours for care. Infections are spreading unchecked, and deaths are also hitting new highs.

It’s difficult to know whether people followed the plea from health experts and avoided big Christmas gatherings. Los Angeles International Airport, however, saw surges in passengers, which some took as a bad sign.

“It’s getting worse, and we haven’t even hit the Christmas or New Year’s surge yet, so I feel like the number of people that are going to die because the hospital system is beyond overwhelmed will shoot up,” one doctor at an L.A. County hospital said.

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Ali Mokdad, an epidemiologist at the University of Washington, said California’s cases are being driven largely by gatherings indoors.

Holiday celebrations that bring together multiple generations may be particularly dangerous, with younger people who are more likely to be asymptomatic potentially exposing older, more vulnerable family members. People tend to feel safer indoors and also have a false sense of security when they are around their family members.

Clearing emergency rooms becomes vital as hospitals struggle with critical patients

“These are your loved ones ... You’re more likely to take off your mask and let down your guard,” he said. Humans are falsely programmed to feel as though “indoors is safe — indoors around my friends and family is even safer.”

The next big test will be whether there are many New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day gatherings.

L.A. County public health director Barbara Ferrer said in an interview last week that crowded shopping malls are also a big concern. Under the state’s regional stay-at-home orders, shopping malls are supposed to be capped at 20% of capacity, but it’s clear that those limits are not being followed.

“We’re going to take a hard look this weekend at the shopping malls because the pictures we’ve been seeing are … another little mini-disaster,” Ferrer said. “The occupancy is supposed to be down to 20%. But when you look around, they look way more crowded than 20%. And that just means a complete breakdown of what we are requiring.”

The question of how many people must be vaccinated to reach herd immunity against COVID-19 is of crucial importance. Experts say the number is probably higher than previously thought.

Inspectors will be out over the post-Christmas weekend, Ferrer said, “and we’re going to have to take a hard look at what we see.”

“That’s just a place where it really be completely unacceptable for there to be crowding,” Ferrer said. “The only way that those malls conceivably could be opened is because there wasn’t going to be any crowding. So if there’s a lot of crowding, that’s a situation that we have to actually get fixed right away. That can get fixed by shopping malls taking more responsibility, or that can get fixed … by us going ahead and looking at whether we need to change [health] orders,” Ferrer said. “But I think the right place to start is to go and take a hard look at what’s going on.”

Shopping malls have come under fire from the L.A. County public health department recently. County investigators issue fines of up to $500 for serious violations of COVID-19 precautions. At malls, these would include not prohibiting eating and drinking, not facilitating social distancing in common spaces and not keeping occupancy below 20% of capacity, among other safety measures.The Glendale Galleria was cited last week. The Citadel Outlets in Commerce have been cited four times, and The Grove in Los Angeles twice.

Officials are most concerned about the situation in local hospitals.

Patients are waiting as many as eight hours in ambulances before they can enter the emergency room. With intensive care units having few or no available beds, health officials are urging that people avoid emergency rooms or dialing 911 for assistance unless absolutely necessary.

L.A. County is testing to see whether a potentially more contagious coronavirus strain is in the community. Mayor Eric Garcetti says it appears likely.

Some hospitals in L.A. County are running dangerously low on their supplies of oxygen, a person familiar with the matter told The Times.

Oxygen is critical to treating severely ill COVID-19 patients who have begun to suffocate because the virus has inflamed their lungs. So now, hospitals need 10 times more oxygen than they did before. There have been periods of time when hospitals have run dangerously low on their stores of oxygen before obtaining additional supplies, said the source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Hospitals are also running short of other key supplies, such as the special plastic tubes used to bring the oxygen into the lungs.

Meanwhile, Los Angeles County scientists have begun to test samples of the coronavirus from local patients to determine whether a new, potentially more contagious strain that is circulating in Britain has arrived, as some officials believe is likely amid a major surge of infections.

The variant is a concern because it may make the virus easier to be transmitted from one person to another, officials said. But once a person has the virus, the variant doesn’t appear to make the person more likely to die.


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