Southern California’s ICU Capacity Is Now at 0%

Due to the COVID-19 surge, beds are full–and many more hospitalizations are likely on the horizon

Public health officials have reported that intensive care unit capacity in the Southern California region has reached zero percent, meaning local health care facilities are strained to critical levels. This is the first time that ICU capacity has hit its maximum in the region during the pandemic, but experts predict that local hospitals have yet to see the worst of the current surge.

“I want to be very clear: Our hospitals are under siege, and our model shows no end in sight,” Christina Ghaly, director of Los Angeles County’s Department of Health Services, said at a briefing yesterday. “The worst is still before us.”

People who end up in the ICU due to COVID-19 typically land there around two or three weeks after they develop the virus. That means the record-shattering numbers of new infections reported recently have yet to convert to hospitalizations.

The Los Angeles Times reports that, when ICU beds are filled, hospitals do have protocols for accommodating patients in other facilities, such as emergency rooms. And, to address the situation, hospitals in the area are now going into “surge mode,” which can allow them to accommodate up to 20 percent more patients than usual.

Temporary field hospitals are being set up across the state, to which overflow patients with less-critical needs can be diverted, freeing up capacity for ICU patients elsewhere.

But the beds themselves are only one component of care. There’s also a limited number of ICU-trained nurses and doctors to tend to the patients. When they’re not available to give patients the appropriate level of care, mortality increases. And that goes for people who go to the hospital for COVID-19-related reasons, and those who suffer trauma, accidents, or other medical emergencies.

Earlier this week, Governor Gavin Newsom revealed some of what the state is calling a “mass fatality plan,” which includes 60 53-foot-long refrigerated storage units to store bodies when there is no longer room in local morgues.

That concept may call to mind bleak images of New York City in the early days of the pandemic. But unlike that time–when doctors and equipment from California and elsewhere were flown to New York to offer aide–now nearly every state is facing its own simultaneous surge.

“This is real, and it’s something that needs to be taken seriously,” Denise Whitfield, an L.A. emergency department physician told reporters Wednesday, describing a shift at her E.R. last weekend, during which she felt, for the first time in her career, that she wasn’t able to appropriately care for every patient for whom she was responsible. “It’s really, really quite frightening to me.”

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