LOS ANGELES – For months, California hospitals avoided the dreaded surge in coronavirus patients that threatened to overwhelm wards and stretch thin staff and supplies. But now, with coronavirus hospitalizations in the state at an all-time high, doctors and nurses at some hospitals say the nightmare has arrived.
Hospitals up and down the state report that their beds are filling up fast, staffers are tiring and medications used to treat coronavirus patients are running low. The surge has hit California unevenly, with some facilities reporting their numbers staying flat in recent weeks, while others have risen sharply.
“We’re getting to the point where we’re just overwhelmed – emotionally, physically exhausted. We don’t have enough workers for all these patients; we’re working extra shifts,” said Mary Lynn Briggs, an intensive care unit nurse at Mercy Hospital in Bakersfield. “I’m expecting things to go from bad to worse over at least the next couple of weeks.”
The months since March allowed hospitals time to prepare for such a surge. Doctors learned more about how to treat COVID-19 patients, hospital administrators obtained more protective gear, and staffers know more about how the coronavirus is transmitted and how to protect themselves.
“When this all started in March, it was an amazing dress rehearsal on fire,” said Sylvain Trepanier, chief clinical executive for Providence Southern California, whose 13 hospitals in Orange, L.A. and San Bernardino counties had as of Friday experienced a 40% increase in COVID-19 patients over the last 10 days. “Thank God we didn’t see that wave (then) as big as we anticipated, but that allowed us to be ready.”
Recent projections suggest that the hospital system in California will be able to handle the demand, in part because busier hospitals can transfer patients to facilities with more space. But even still, the strain on some hospitals is unprecedented.
Statewide, the number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 has increased nearly 50% over the last two weeks and now sits at a record high. The earlier peak of 3,497 hospitalized patients in California on April 29 was surpassed June 20, and the number has continued to climb every day since then. On Saturday, 6,322 people were hospitalized with COVID-19 in California.
Health officials have linked the surge to an increase in transmission of the coronavirus that began in late May, as some counties began reopening businesses, thousands gathered in large protests and some people, tired of staying home, met up with family and friends.
The growth in hospitalizations has prompted a rollback of reopenings, but the benefits have yet to be seen in the case numbers.
Dr. Stephanie Loe, an emergency room physician with the Riverside University Health System, flew to New York in the spring to help treat COVID-19 patients when the surge didn’t materialize in California.
At the time, only a few coronavirus patients were in her ER at Riverside, and the numbers of patients with traumas like gunshot wounds and injuries from car accidents were lower than usual, probably because of the stay-at-home orders. Many people also seemed to be avoiding the ER for treatment for strokes and heart attacks.
Now, those usual ER patients are filing in again, as are large numbers of COVID-19 patients, pushing the hospital to its capacity, she said. Loe said ER doctors are accustomed to an extremely busy shift now and again, “but right now it’s consistently bad.”
“Every day in the last two weeks has been, if not steady, consistently getting worse,” she said.
The increase in coronavirus cases in California has prompted hospital leaders to kick into high gear and prepare for a surge, said Carmela Coyle, head of the California Hospital Assn.
They are drafting plans to shift patients between hospitals if needed, bolstering testing supplies, training staff to treat COVID-19 patients as well as “looking at every nook and cranny within California’s hospitals to see if there is more space,” Coyle said at a news conference last week.
“California hospitals have been and continue to be ready to deal with the COVID crisis,” she said.
Many health care workers say that even if hospitals can find space to put beds, staffing remains a bottleneck, one that could become even more restrictive if nurses begin falling sick from the virus. Some nurses say they believe that will happen because of inadequate protective gear.