Amid COVID-19 surge, SoCal hospitals faced with stark choice: Who gets care, who gets turned away?

PASADENA, Calif. (KABC) -- Images of doctors forced to make life and death decisions at the beginning of the pandemic are seared into our minds. Every hospital has a plan for how to deal with mass casualties and diminished resources, but all hope it would never have to be used.

In what may be described as a letter to its community, one local hospital explains how these hard decisions will be made.

"This is the darkest hour of the dark right now," said Huntington Hospital infectious disease specialist Dr. Kimberly Shriner.

It's cold, windy and wet, but an overflow tent next to the emergency department at Huntington Hospital in Pasadena is in full use. Inside the building, beds are filled with COVID-19 patients. The staff has even put beds in their auditorium.

"It's just wave, on wave, on wave and now it's really a tsunami," Shriner said.

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Providence Holy Cross Hospital in Mission Hills has seen the number of COVID-19 patients quadruple since the beginning of November.



Shriner is on Huntington's coronavirus task force. On its website, the hospital just posted information describing how tough patient care decisions will be made if resources run scarce.

"At a certain point, it would be like a mass casualty event where you have to go literally from one bed to the next. And say, 'OK, this person, the likelihood that they're going to survive this is very small. And so we're going to have to make a really tough choice,'" she said.

Like who should get oxygen or anesthesia? At Southern California hospitals, designated teams will be tasked with these difficult decisions.

"That includes a bioethicist, a physician, a nurse and a community member. And they evaluate the situation," Shriner said. "They reevaluate it. Those are really, really awful decisions to have to make."

Huntington Hospital is still able to manage, but more COVID-19 infections could soon force hospitals to the tipping point. And it's not just coronavirus patients who'll be impacted.

"It affects all the people that need to go to the hospital for other reasons - they're having a heart attack. They have cancer," Shriner said. "That's really what we're worried about, is that we're going to get to the point where we can't take care of everybody the way we want to."

Shriner reminds us to not forsake coronavirus safety measures.

"You want to be alive to be able to receive the vaccine. That's what it boils down to. And the way to do that is to stay at home, wear a mask," she said. "Don't mingle with people that are outside your household and just wait."

Amid this surge, health care workers continue to get their vaccines. Another vaccine contender Novavax announced it's now recruiting 30,000 volunteers in the U.S. and Mexico for stage three trials.
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