Southern California hospital ICUs reach zero percent capacity as COVID-19 rips through state

A nightmare is unfolding in California as hospitals throughout the state report zero percent availability for intensive care unit (ICU) beds, and officials have warned that the situation will only worsen as the coronavirus pandemic spreads in the nation’s most populous state.

Just before falling to zero on Dec. 17, ICU beds throughout Southern California—which includes Los Angeles and San Diego, the state’s largest cities—were registering at 0.5 percent availability the day before. The San Joaquin Valley in central California has seen its ICUs repeatedly reach full capacity last week before climbing to a negligible 0.7 percent as of Thursday. Hospitals in the region that are already full are now operating at 20 percent overcapacity as health officials have been seeking help from training nurses and health care workers internationally to work in ICUs.

California’s hospitalizations have broken records for 19 consecutive days. As of Thursday, 16,965 people were hospitalized with COVID-19, according to the state’s dashboard, more than six times more than the number on Halloween. State officials had previously estimated that 12 percent of new COVID-19 cases would likely require hospitalization, and 12 percent of these would end up in the ICU. These numbers, however, do not account for the new rates of infection, which will push hospitals and staff to the breaking point in the period leading to Christmas and New Year’s Day.

Dr. Christina Ghaly, Los Angeles County’s director of health services, told the Los Angeles Times, “There are simply not enough trained staff to care for the volume of patients that are projected to come and need care,” warning, “Our hospitals are under siege, and our model shows no end in sight.”

This was confirmed by Dr. Denise Whitfield, associate medical director with the L.A. County emergency medical services agency and an ER physician at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, who told the Times, “If the numbers continue to increase the way they have, I am afraid that we may run out of capacity within our hospitals,” adding, “And the level of care that every resident in Los Angeles County deserves may be threatened just by the fact that we are overwhelmed.”

The lack of ICU beds means that the quality of patient care will decline for critically ill patients, including those suffering from other health emergencies, including strokes, heart attacks and injuries. The limited number of nurses per patient will also lead to increases in mortality. Patients that under normal staffing ratios would have been saved will now lose their lives.