Dr. Bernard Klein

Healthcare professionals continue to urge the public to wear masks, socially distance, and frequently wash their hands to reduce the risk of becoming infected with the novel coronavirus that has repeatedly spread through cities and states — in fact the world — since March.

But the latest surge of confirmed COVID-19 is straining the ability of some hospitals and medical centers in Los Angeles county to provide care for the infected, and creating concern that the facilities could become overwhelmed in the coming weeks.

“We’re dealing with what I call a ‘super surge,’ the biggest surge we’ve faced to date in the pandemic,” said Dr. Bernard Klein, internist and chief executive for the Providence Holy Cross Medical Center in Mission Hills.

Klein said that at the beginning of November, his facility had its fewest amount of hospitalized COVID-19  patients (20) “since the beginning of the pandemic.” But by Thanksgiving, that total had doubled. And when this week began, the number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients had doubled again, to 80.

Other Providence-supported facilities in Tarzana and Burbank were also experiencing their highest levels of hospitalized COVID-19 patients, the doctor said. 

“We still have [space] left, although it is getting tight,” Klein said. “We are still able to accommodate elective surgeries. But we are monitoring it on a day-by-day basis. Again, it’s important to know we still have capacity, but it is nail-biting time.”

Dr. Mark Dumais, internist and chief medical officer for the Dignity Health Northridge Hospital Medical Center, could not offer a specific numbers of available beds. But he did say, “Our [patient] numbers are substantially in excess of what we saw in the spring, when this was beginning and taking off, and also the summer surge that came along.”

“In Northridge we are blessed with a lot of resources and we can continue to take in patients. Of course, no hospital or health system has unlimited resources. And this current rate of growth of cases cannot be supported indefinitely. No one can handle continued exponential growth,” Dumais said.

And there are few if any signs of when this current surge will peak.

On Monday, Dec. 7, county health officials reported more than 8,000 additional COVID-19 cases. The following day, officials reported another 64 coronavirus-related deaths, reaching a milestone of 8,000 total deaths, along with 8,547 newly confirmed cases. The number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 is now at 3,113, a record that reflects roughly a doubling since early November.

More COVID-19 case spikes are being predicted by healthcare officials during this Christmas holiday season.

“One of the things that has been challenging about the pandemic in general is that this is a new situation, a new virus. And we, the public health community, have necessarily been learning as we go,” Dumais said.

“So to the extent the guidelines seem to have changed either early or late in the pandemic, that’s the nature of science and imperfect information. [But] it’s been highly problematic because people discount or can choose to discount the [latest] information because it can be contrary to the information disseminated earlier.”

Gov. Gavin Newsom reinstated regional “stay-at-home” orders for the state this week and shut down businesses considered “non-essential” for a period of three weeks. The new orders were triggered when intensive-care unit (ICU) bed availability remained below 15% in the 11-county Southern California region after the Dec. 5 daily update, according to the California Department of Public Health.

Klein said having a lower ICU bed capacity and stretched-thin staffing does not mean that hospitals would turn away people who need treatment.

“If a patient shows up and needs to be seen, we will see them and care for them no matter what,” Klein said. “What starts to happen when your ICU capacity gets low, you start to delay non-emergency surgeries because, post operatively, they would need ICU care and we don’t have the beds or staff right now to take care of them. But we would never turn away a patient that shows up at our doors.”

What frustrates medical professionals like Klein and Dumais has been the public resistance — either due to misinformation or political persuasion — to the wearing of masks, social distancing, and the frequent washing of hands. Because those preventive methods have shown the medical community they are effective in reducing the risk of contracting the coronavirus.

“The biggest frustration is that this [pandemic] has been politicized instead of letting the health care professionals lead the recommendations. That’s been incredibly disheartening, that it’s been so politicized,” Klein said.

“Wearing a mask — I don’t understand how anyone can even question that. If I drank, you wouldn’t let me drive a car because I could not only hurt myself, but hurt others. Why would we let people go out in public without wearing a mask when they could hurt themselves or hurt others. If we don’t let people drive drunk, why are we allowing people to go out in the community without a mask?”

Dumais offered another perspective.

“We do have nine months of experience because it has struck different parts of the country and countries across our globe,” he said. “And from our collective experience we know — both here and abroad — that the things being advocated for in terms of preventing infections do work.”

Some good news was presented on Tuesday by Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer, who said the county expects to receive its first supply of a coronavirus vaccine as early as next week. An initial allocation of 84,000 doses is anticipated, and that health care workers at acute care hospitals, would be prioritized under Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.

But while it might be a sign that relief and help is on the way, Klein warned against expectations of an immediate end to the pandemic.

“It’s gonna take time to vaccinate the vast majority of people in this country. This is not going to be an overnight fix,” he said. “It’s great that we do have a vaccine coming soon, and it’s great that it appears to be effective with relatively minimal side effects. And it’s great we’ll be able to provide immunity. But it will take a significant amount of time to vaccinate enough people to create a ‘herd immunity.’”