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Today’s Headlines: The ICU equation

In July, nurse Jeanette Pimentel checks on a COVID-19 patient in intensive care at Paradise Valley Hospital in National City.
In July, nurse Jeanette Pimentel checks on a COVID-19 patient in intensive care at Paradise Valley Hospital in National City.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

In California, intensive care units are filling up fast. It’s not just a matter of adding new beds.

TOP STORIES

The ICU Equation

With intensive care units across California rapidly filling with COVID-19 patients, hospitals have a limited number of tools available to free up more capacity in the coming weeks as cases are expected to surge.

Back in the spring, the government opened a so-called “surge” hospital in Los Angeles and even docked a Navy medical ship in San Pedro harbor to take overflow patients if medical centers filled up. But officials found that those supplemental facilities did not treat many patients and did not provide the same level of care as traditional hospitals.

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ICU capacity has become tight in several locations around L.A. County, including the Westside, the San Gabriel Valley and southeast L.A. County. Among staffed and licensed beds, on Sunday, the Westside had eight ICU beds available; southeast L.A. County had seven, and the San Gabriel Valley had just three.

Moreover, experts say the limiting factor is not so much physical beds as it is doctors and nurses with up-to-date specialized intensive care training. Beyond exhaustion, those healthcare workers are also at risk of falling ill.

So in the coming weeks in L.A. County, hospitals will try to choreograph their staffing to best meet the needs of critically ill patients, some of whom still might have to be sent to other areas of the hospital that don’t typically treat ICU cases.

But that comes with risks, especially amid the surge we’re seeing now. A Times tally of coronavirus cases statewide found more than 33,000 new infections reported on Monday.

More Top Coronavirus Headlines

— The Trump administration opted last summer not to lock in a chance to buy millions of additional doses of one of the leading coronavirus vaccine contenders, a decision that could delay the delivery of a second batch of doses until manufacturer Pfizer fulfills other international contracts.

Britain became the first Western country to begin a mass vaccination effort on Tuesday when a 90-year-old woman received the first dose of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine.

Los Angeles schools will shut down completely beginning Thursday for all in-person tutoring and special services amid a dangerous surge.

— Tempers have flared as Southern California restaurants push back on a ban on outdoor dining.

— Three Central Coast counties said they may seek approval to separate from the Southern California region that is subject to the state’s stay-at-home order to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

For more, sign up for Coronavirus Today, a special edition of The Times’ Health and Science newsletter.

Biden’s Pentagon Pick

President-elect Joe Biden will nominate retired four-star Army Gen. Lloyd J. Austin to be secretary of Defense, according to four people familiar with the decision who spoke with the Associated Press. If confirmed by the Senate, Austin would be the first Black leader of the Pentagon.

Austin retired from the Army in 2016, and he would need a congressional waiver of the legal requirement that a former member of the military be out of uniform at least seven years before serving as secretary of Defense.

Although many previous Defense secretaries have served briefly in the military, only two — George C. Marshall, under President Truman, and James N. Mattis, under President Trump — have been career officers.

More Politics

— Senate Republicans raised red flags over Biden’s plan to nominate California Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra to be secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, although it is uncertain whether that could grow into enough opposition to scuttle the confirmation. At least five Republicans objected to Becerra’s nomination, citing his endorsement of a government-run “Medicare for all” healthcare system, his support for abortion rights or his relative lack of healthcare expertise and experience running an expansive government agency.

— Biden named Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti as one of five co-chairs for his upcoming inauguration, despite calls from protesters to exclude the mayor from appointment to a federal post.

The New D.A. in Town

When George Gascón campaigned to become L.A. County’s district attorney, he vowed to reimagine criminal prosecutions.

On his first day in office, he announced a list of sweeping policy changes he’ll make. They include an end to cash bail, a ban on prosecutors seeking enhanced prison sentences, and showing leniency to many low-level offenders.

The dramatic reversals of deeply ingrained, traditional law enforcement strategies in the nation’s largest district attorney’s office also will include a review of thousands of old cases to determine whether lighter sentences or prisoner releases should be sought.

But Gascón’s plans don’t sit well among many of the 1,200 deputy district attorneys, some of whom have complained that the new top prosecutor drew up his new, aggressive playbook without sufficient input from the office he now runs.

He Had the Right Stuff

Chuck Yeager braved danger first in combat during World War II and then on the fringes of space as a test pilot.

Famously, he became the first man to break the sound barrier. But for a man known as unflappable, he later confessed to the highly un-Yeager-like emotion of fear.

“I was scared,” he wrote in a memoir, “knowing that many of my colleagues thought I was doomed to be blasted to pieces by an invisible brick wall in the sky. But I noticed that the faster I got, the smoother the ride. Suddenly, the Mach needle began to fluctuate, then tipped right off the scale.”

On Monday, the aeronautic legend died at 97.

How We Eat Today

The Times’ 101 list is an annual tradition highlighting the best on the L.A. dining scene. But in a time filled with so much suffering for the restaurant world and the community at large, this year’s list by restaurant critics Bill Addison and Patricia I. Escárcega is different.

First and foremost, it celebrates resilience. There are some familiar taco trucks, Thai favorites and Koreatown institutions, as well as pop-ups highlighting the next generation of L.A. dining talent. It also acknowledges 10 individuals and organizations helping to forge a more equitable future through activism and collaboration.

Here’s the full list (available only to Times subscribers) as well as a closer look at how it was put together.

FROM THE ARCHIVES

Being Santa is a tough job — ask former Times staffer Bob Pool.

In 1990, Pool went undercover to find out just how hard California’s mall and festival Santas worked to keep up the illusion. He wrote a series of stories for The Times documenting the experience.

On Dec. 8, he spent a busy Saturday as a Torrance shopping center’s Santa. He worked with holiday photographer Muriel Wuethrich, who was serious about getting the perfect shot. Among her rules: Be efficient, read the child’s emotions and make sure your Santa suit is neat.

Dec. 8, 1990: Photographer Muriel Wuetrich positions a baby on Santa's lap before taking his picture
Dec. 8, 1990: Photographer Muriel Wuetrich positions 2-month-old Sergio Maya on Santa’s lap before taking his picture at the Rolling Hills Plaza. Santa is Los Angeles Times reporter Bob Pool. This photo was published in the Dec. 9, 1990 Los Angeles Times.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

CALIFORNIA

— Bank of America estimated that fraud in California’s unemployment benefits system could total $2 billion, and said it has identified 640,000 accounts with suspicious activity that should be investigated to determine whether they are bogus and should be shut down.

— The new two-year session of the state Legislature has begun in Sacramento, and lawmakers have a long COVID-19 to-do list.

— Southern California Edison preemptively shut off power to more than 54,000 customers by Monday night as widespread fire weather conditions ramp up across the region. More than 150,000 additional customers are facing potential shutoffs as well. On Monday, a brush fire broke out in Santa Paula.

— The curious case of the moving monolith has a new wrinkle as yet another mysterious silver structure has appeared in Southern California, this time in the Los Padres National Forest.

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NATION-WORLD

— As the Pentagon pulls troops out of the Middle East in the coming weeks, under orders from Trump, U.S. military leaders are working to find other ways to deter potential attacks by Iran and its proxies, and to counter arguments that America is abandoning the region.

— As Trump’s tenure in the White House draws to a close, his administration is accelerating the pace of federal executions, putting him on track to oversee the greatest number of any president in a century.

— In Central Africa, a group of villages have joined together in an experiment to save the world’s second-largest rainforest.

HOLLYWOOD AND THE ARTS

— In a year that shut down much of the music industry, Lil Baby dominated streaming and owned 2020. Wait until you hear about his 2021.

— The pandemic has been a curse for background actors. But a financial blessing has emerged under the new COVID-19 safety rules: TV shows are offering to keep the actors on for whole seasons.

Bob Dylan’s entire catalog of songs, which spans 60 years, is being acquired by Universal Music. The deal covers copyrights to 600 songs.

BUSINESS

— Should California ban the installation of natural gas in new homes? A climate battle is heating up.

— First comes positive news of vaccine progress. Then the stock market surges — and pharmaceutical executives profit. A new study finds that it’s a pattern.

Elon Musk has moved his private foundation from California to Austin, Texas — another sign the billionaire may be relocating to the Lone Star State.

SPORTS

— When other professional sports leagues planned around the coronavirus with caution, the NFL went boldly and cleverly ahead with a new season. Experts say it may not end in the league’s favor.

— Dozens of international student athletes committed to play for California colleges. But when the semester arrived, pandemic immigration rules kept them from entering the country and pushed them onto a different court.

— With the NBA preseason starting up already this week, columnist Bill Plaschke has a plea: Bench LeBron James now so the Lakers can repeat as champions later.

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OPINION

Schools are at least as important as shopping malls, The Times’ editorial board writes. Keep what’s open, open.

— The immigrant families separated at the border by the Trump administration should be granted asylum in this country, a trio of clinical developmental neuroscientists writes.

WHAT OUR EDITORS ARE READING

— A suspected Chinese intelligence operative developed extensive ties with local and national politicians, including many in California, between 2011 and 2015, Axios found in a yearlong investigation. (Axios)

— In 2020, we lived our lives online. And the rampant disinformation finally broke us. (BuzzFeed News)

ONLY IN L.A.

But is it art? Artist David Lew, who goes by the name Shark Toof, has sued the Chinese American Museum and the city of Los Angeles, among others, saying work he contributed to an exhibition in 2018 was discarded in the trash. Lew said the installation included 88 empty canvas sacks adorned with hand-applied gold leaf paint and suspended on burlap twine with wooden clothespins. According to the lawsuit, days before the exhibition was to end, a city maintenance crew took down the canvas bags and threw most of them out.

Comments or ideas? Email us at headlines@latimes.com.


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