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Amid Health Care Worker Shortage, LA Mayor Presses For Faster Vaccine Rollout

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti visits a coronavirus vaccination site at the city's Lincoln Park on Wednesday.
Frazer Harrison
Getty Images
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti visits a coronavirus vaccination site at the city's Lincoln Park on Wednesday.

As surging coronavirus cases push intensive care units across Los Angeles to the breaking point, Mayor Eric Garcetti says what's needed more than hospital space and safety equipment right now is trained health workers and more vaccine doses.

"The toughest thing right now isn't just space — though it's pinched — it's really personnel and getting enough people to be there for the shifts to save lives," Garcetti tells All Things Considered. "That's increasingly where we are feeling the crunch."

A startling 7,613 patients are currently hospitalized with COVID-19 in Los Angeles County, including at least 1,580 of whom are in ICUs as of 4 p.m. ET on Thursday, according to the state Department of Public Health website.

As much as the health system expected a surge in cases, Garcetti says there is only so much staffing available to brace for the influx of patients.

"The plans were there to have surge capacity and that's what we're seeing enacted," he says.

Now, the number of ICU beds available is "very close" to operating at that new surge capacity, says Garcetti.

"There's a point in which there's just not enough people for the shifts," he says. "No matter how much you surge up, there's a point in which [case] numbers can go beyond what capacity is."

The staffing crisis is further strained by front-line workers' daily exposure to the coronavirus. During the second week of December alone, 2,191 health care workers tested positive for the virus — a 25% jump in cases compared to the previous week.

The city's vaccine distribution efforts give the mayor some sense of hope. He says some 85,000 to 90,000 Angelenos have already received their first dose — largely health care workers, nursing facility residents and firefighters.

But he says Los Angeles has the capacity to inoculate its population at a faster pace — thanks to the infrastructure it set up for testing, Garcetti says — and is pressing the state and federal governments to accelerate its distribution of the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines.

"We've got the storage, we've got the firefighters, we've got the volunteers, we're bringing together the medics and clinicians," Garcetti says. "We can go as fast as you give us those vaccines."

Like most of the state, Los Angeles is under a stay-at-home order. But the virus continues to spread rapidly in the city despite the strict restrictions. Garcetti says that's because LA is the state's most densely populated metro area.

Health officials have linked Thanksgiving gatherings to a spike in positive cases. For New Year's Eve, Garcetti says he's leaning on the city's police officers and building safety inspectors to enforce business closures and bans on large gatherings. And he says he is supportive if county health officials decide to implement further restrictions.

For now, though, Garcetti says slowing the spread is "less about what's open and closed and more about our own individual behaviors."

Jonaki Mehta and Jan Johnson produced and edited the audio interview..

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Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.