Hospital doctors and nurses treat COVID-19 patients in a makeshift ICU wing at Harbor UCLA Medical Center on Dec. 29 in Torrance.

LOS ANGELES – The astronomical coronavirus surge in Los Angeles has infected thousands of healthcare workers in recent weeks and exacerbated the strain on hospitals struggling to care for critically ill patients.

More than 2,200 people who work at hospitals in L.A. County tested positive for the virus in December alone, constituting  roughly a third of all hospital infections reported during the pandemic. Whereas in previous months nursing homes and outpatient clinics suffered the most illnesses, besieged hospitals and their beleaguered workers have been hit hardest by the winter surge.

Dr. Anish Mahajan, chief medical officer of Harbor-UCLA Medical Center in Torrance, said that adequately staffing his hospital – where the ICU is stretched to 150% of its normal capacity – is a constant challenge, with staffers out because they are ill with COVID-19 or quarantining due to exposure. Hospitals across California have reported similar trends.

“Somebody who wears their PPE perfectly and deals with high-risk patients doesn’t get sick at work ... when they get home, their teenager might give them COVID. We see that a lot,” Mahajan said. “We end up short-staffed in everything, from nurses to doctors to even the custodial staff that helps us turn over the rooms. And all of that makes it even more difficult to take an onslaught of more and more patients.”

The recent explosion of the coronavirus has trapped L.A.’s hospitals in a vicious cycle. The more people who are ill, the more likely others will become infected, both at and away from work. That, in turn, intensifies staffing shortages at hospitals – at the very moment the public needs medical care the most.

Outbreaks have also jumped dramatically in recent months among grocery store workers and retail employees and at other workplaces.  But the rise in infections comes at a crucial time for L.A.’s hospitals as they buckle under a deluge of patients and turn away ambulances, line hallways with gurneys and cram bodies into overflowing morgues.

Officials reported Tuesday that a record 7,898 people with COVID-19 were currently admitted to hospitals in L.A. County, a record-breaking total that is expected only to grow in the coming weeks.

“We’re going to continue to work with organizations across the county to ensure that healthcare workers at every location are protected,” L.A. County public health director Barbara Ferrer said this week.

Since the pandemic began, 28,448 healthcare workers and first responders have tested positive for the coronavirus in L.A. County, and 132 have died from the virus, Ferrer said. Hospitals, nursing homes and outpatient clinics account for the majority of cases.

Infections among healthcare workers have swelled as overall cases have grown. In a single week in mid-December, as L.A. County reported more coronavirus infections than ever, 2,363 healthcare workers and first responders fell ill with COVID-19, compared with 360 two months prior.

Hospitals are where these problems compound. Nurses and doctors are stretched thin as COVID-19 patients overrun hospitals, and staff are out with the disease themselves, said UCLA emergency room  nurse Marcia Santini.

“We have COVID that’s rampant and we have a very sick population – coupled with that we have a staffing crisis,” she said. “All of that combined is putting a real stress on these facilities.”

Santini became sick with COVID-19 last month, though she is not certain how she contracted the virus. She cared for COVID-19 patients before becoming ill, but her husband showed symptoms before her, suggesting he got it at work and then passed it on to her.

Her illness became so severe that she couldn’t breathe and was admitted to the hospital for days. Nearly three weeks later, she remains easily fatigued. “I’ve never gone through anything like this,” she said.

At Kaiser Permanente San Jose Medical Center, at least 43 staff members recently contracted the coronavirus, including one who died, part of an outbreak possibly linked to an employee who wore an inflatable holiday costume in the hospital to lift spirits.

In Fresno County, where only 11 ICU beds remained available Tuesday, a recent rash of healthcare workers falling ill or needing to stay home due to exposure to the virus has hampered hospitals’ ability to treat patients, said interim health officer Dr. Rais Vohra.

“We have hundreds of people who are out who could otherwise be working in our hospitals,” Vohra said.  “There are so many cases that are happening, whether it’s a healthcare worker who’s sick or a relative who’s ill, that really affects our ability to deliver care because that person then has to take time off.”

Recommended for you