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What Does Zero ICU Capacity Mean For Southern California?

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

There are lots of big, horrifying numbers in this pandemic - 17 million confirmed U.S. cases, 300,000 some deaths. Well, here's a small, horrifying number - zero. Zero percent is the current available capacity of intensive care unit beds here in Southern California. Joining us now to talk about what that means and what happens next is Jackie Fortier. She's a health reporter with KPCC in Los Angeles. Welcome.

JACKIE FORTIER, BYLINE: Thank you.

CHANG: So I think when people hear 0% capacity, they might imagine someone showing up at the hospital with COVID being turned away, right? So what does 0% capacity actually mean?

FORTIER: Yeah, it means that intensive care unit beds are full. So hospitals go into surge mode. And that means that they put patients in open beds in other parts of the hospital, like emergency rooms or operating recovery rooms. Now, hospitals can accommodate a few more patients, but they really worry about being able to care adequately for the sickest patients.

CHANG: Well, what does that mean for, like, other hospital patients? What happens to people who, say, get in a car crash or, I don't know, fall off a ladder while they're putting up Christmas lights?

FORTIER: Right. And that's the dilemma the hospitals have. They're really at their tipping point, and they can only care for the sickest patients. I talked to Brad Spellberg, the chief medical officer of LA County USC Medical Center. It's one of the largest hospitals in the area.

BRAD SPELLBERG: We are the safety net. That is the point. The safety net itself is stretched to the limit.

FORTIER: So he says it means waiting, you know, sometimes hours for care. Hospitals are trying to get patients out of recovery as quickly as possible to free up beds. They're trying to treat patients via telehealth as often as possible. Many have already set up triage tents to keep people from flooding the emergency rooms.

CHANG: OK. So we have crossed this extremely dangerous threshold. Cases are still surging across California. What is the state doing at this point to try to bend that curve?

FORTIER: Well, California has requested 200 Department of Defense medical workers to help from - and even help from other countries. Some areas in California, like in Orange County or the Central Valley, are setting up temporary field hospitals. Now, most of California's population is under a stay-at-home order. And health officials are just pleading with people to wear masks. But beyond that, the state is really struggling to find an answer.

CHANG: Well, if we're expecting this flood of patients to continue, I mean, with Christmas and New Year's still ahead of us, what are you hearing from hospital staff right now who are just completely exhausted already?

FORTIER: I mean, can you imagine working for months in the ICU, having to explain to family members on the phone - because the family members are not allowed in - that their loved one will likely die and then walking outside to see people not wearing masks, you know, not being safe?

CHANG: Yeah.

FORTIER: I mean, health care workers that I talked to are frustrated, and they are exhausted. And they know that they'll have to take care of even more patients. This Thanksgiving surge has really come at really the worst time. And honestly, they are scared that Christmas and New Year's and other holidays will lead to even more cases. At the same time, hospital administrators are struggling to find more staff because they know they're going to need them.

CHANG: That is Jackie Fortier, health reporter with member station KPCC in Los Angeles. Thank you.

FORTIER: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.