SoCal hospitals implementing COVID-19 surge plans; some options no longer available

Local hospitals are overwhelmed, many at capacity. So why isn't California using the USNS Mercy like it did earlier in the pandemic?
With ICU capacity at 100% across Southern California, hospitals are implementing surge plans to increase capacity. But public health officials say it's not so much a question of having enough bed space, but rather having enough frontline health care workers to care for patients.

"What we're seeing in the ICUs is we've got some space, and they're able to move stuff around and free up space," said Shane Reichardt, public information officer for the Riverside County Emergency Management Department. "But our staff in the ICU is really low."

At the Riverside University Health Systems Medical Center in Moreno Valley, partitions and curtains have been set up in the hospital to create more ICU bed space. But finding the personnel to care for patients is difficult.

"Our staffing levels are critical right now. We're doing everything we can to pull staffing from the state and other areas, but everybody is experiencing the same thing," said Reichardt.

At Loma Linda University Medical Center, the ICU is full. Modular buildings have been set up in the parking lot and are being used as screening and waiting areas for COVID-19 patients.

At Arrowhead Regional Medical Center, the ICU is also at 100% capacity. Hospital personnel have now placed eight additional ICU beds in their post anesthesia care unit.

But staffing shortages also mean many of the overflow options that were available across the area during the early weeks of the pandemic are not available right now.

For example, the federal medical stations that were deployed by the National Guard in Riverside and Indio in early March are now empty; the beds and materials are all boxed up.

Riverside County public health officials say it's simply a matter of not having enough staff, with all additional personnel going to hospitals, skilled nursing facilities and acute care units.

Reichardt said the federal medical stations would likely be used for non-COVID patients anyway.

Another example is the USNS Mercy, the military hospital ship that was deployed from San Diego to the Port of Los Angeles back in late March to help local hospitals treat non-COVID patients. At this time, requests haven't been made for the USNS Mercy to return.

Gov. Gavin Newsom says it's not a matter of needing more facilities to treat COVID-19 patients, but health care workers to treat them.

"It's a question I receive often: Are we pursing the USNS Mercy," said Governor Newsom during his Monday afternoon briefing. "Currently we are not."

"What we, however, are looking for are personnel... those that often are deployed on the USNS Mercy would be identified as a top priority. Staffing is our need, not the physical structure yet, as it relates to our immediate needs."
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