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In LA, 10 People Test Positive For COVID-19 Every Minute. What's Behind The Surge?

People take a COVID-19 test on the Martin Luther King Jr. Medical Campus in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
People take a COVID-19 test on the Martin Luther King Jr. Medical Campus in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

Listen: How one cafe in LA is building community amid the coronavirus surge

Los Angeles county is one of the hottest COVID hotspots in the U.S. right now. Every minute, on average, 10 more people test positive. Can Los Angeles get control of the surge?


Dr. Elaine Batchlor, CEO of Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Hospital in South Los Angeles. (@yourMLKCH)

Anne Rimoin, professor of epidemiology at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health. Director of the Center for Global and Immigrant Health. (@arimoin)

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Valerie Ewald, clinical nurse at UCLA Santa Monica Medical Center.

Shenita Anderson, emergency room nurse at Olympia Medical Center.

Sean Knibb, owner of Knibb Design Interiors and Flowerboy Project, a boutique, café and flower shop in Venice.

Interview Highlights

What’s behind the severity of the surge going on in LA County right now?

Dr. Elaine Batchlor: “I can tell you what’s been going on in our community, and I think it is connected to the surge. So my hospital is located in South LA. We serve the communities of Watts and Compton. It’s a low income community where almost all the residents are African American and Latino. And it’s been hit particularly hard by COVID. There are a number of reasons why our community has been hit so hard. Number one, this is where the essential workers live. These are the people that continue to work and continue to be exposed on the job. They’re the people that stock the stores, drive the busses and clean up after the rest of us. And they’re getting COVID in very high numbers.

“They also live in more crowded housing. Los Angeles has some very crowded housing, and when one member of the family gets infected, it’s difficult for them to isolate and they’re likely to infect the rest of the family. So we’re seeing entire families coming in with COVID. And then finally, this community has what I call an epidemic of poorly treated chronic illness. These are diseases like diabetes that is three times more prevalent in South LA than in the rest of the state. And these conditions make them more vulnerable to these serious complications of COVID. So we see African American and Latinos being admitted to the hospital and dying at two to three times the rate of others.”

How many hospital beds are available at Martin Luther King Jr. Community Hospital?

Dr. Elaine Batchlor: “Officially, we have no beds available. We are a 131 bed hospital, and we have 200 inpatients in the hospital right now.”

For patients who continue to come to the hospital, how are they being treated?

Dr. Elaine Batchlor: “When beds in the hospital are not available, patients are held in the emergency department until a bed opens up.”

Do you have temporary facilities that you’ve had to erect as well?

Dr. Elaine Batchlor: “We have put up five tents outside of the hospital. These are medical grade tents that we’re using for triage and treatment of our emergency department patients. We’ve added beds to the hospital. We have doubled up single rooms. We have patient gurneys in hallways in the emergency department. We have converted the emergency department waiting room into patient treatment space. And we’ve put patients in the old gift shop and in the chapel. So we’ve put patients in every conceivable space inside the hospital. And my staff has done a magnificent job of accommodating the increase in patient need.”

Is there an even more urgent lack of access to medical care in the very communities that need it the most in LA County right now?

Dr. Elaine Batchlor: “There’s a chronic lack of access to medical care, so the community of South LA, where my hospital is located, has the lowest number of hospital beds per 100,000 people of any area in Los Angeles County. We also know that in our community we are missing 1,200 physicians. That’s 500 primary care physicians and 700 specialists. And the lack of hospital beds, the lack of physicians is all related to what I call our separate and unequal health care system.

“We have a separate system of funding health care for low income communities. It’s called Medicaid. And in California, Medicaid pays providers very low rates, which makes it difficult to financially sustain health care services in low income communities. And that leads to the problems with access that you just spoke about and also problems with quality.”

Have you have you been able to get vaccines for the workers at the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Hospital?

Dr. Elaine Batchlor: “Yes, we have. We got our first allocation of the Pfizer vaccine right before Christmas, I think it was. And within the first few days, we had vaccinated over 500 members of our staff. Our staff are mostly people of color. Over 85% percent of my team is people of color. And they were thrilled to have access to the COVID vaccine. We want to model that behavior for the community. We want people in the community to know that the vaccine is safe and effective, the best way for us to protect ourselves, our community and to end the pandemic.”

On what people can learn from LA’s COVID surge

Dr. Elaine Batchlor: “I hope that what people learn is that we are all connected. We are all part of one community and we need to do a better job of taking care of each other, and taking care of the most vulnerable in our community. If our essential workers are still being exposed, if they don’t have adequate access to health care, that’s a problem for all of us. And we need to build a more effective system of caring for everyone in our country.”

From The Reading List

The Guardian: “‘The horror stories are countless’: inside the LA hospital at the center of the Covid crisis” — “Husbands and wives, twin brothers in their 20s, parents and their children. Family members are turning up one after another at Martin Luther King Jr community hospital (MLKCH) in South Los Angeles. The deaths have been piling up.”

The Atlantic: “How a Well-Meaning Health Policy Created California’s Coronavirus Nightmare” — “Everyone’s worst pandemic nightmare is happening in Los Angeles. Intensive-care units are overflowing with patients gasping for breath, and there might not be enough ventilators to go around. If a patient has virtually no chance of survival, ambulances have been told not to bother transporting them to a hospital at all.”

STAT News: “In LA, ambulances circle for hours and ICUs are full. Is this what Covid-19 has in store for the rest of the country?” — “The situation here is dire. Every minute, 10 people test positive for Covid-19. Every eight minutes, someone dies. Ambulances circle for hours, unable to find ERs that can accept patients. Hospitals are running out of oxygen. ICU capacity is at zero. Patients lie in hallways and tents. Emergency room nurses have more patients than they can handle — sometimes six at a time.”

Los Angeles Times: “Deaths among Latinos in L.A. County from COVID-19 rising at astonishing levels” — “As the coronavirus spreads relentlessly through Los Angeles County, poor neighborhoods and the region’s Latino and Black communities continue to bear the brunt of illness and death, according to data released Wednesday.”

OC Register: “California lags far behind other states in COVID-19 vaccination rates” — “California is one of the slowest states in the nation when it comes to rolling out coronavirus vaccines, data from the Centers for Disease Control show — even as virus cases surge, overburdened hospitals turn away patients and record numbers of people die.”

Bloomberg: “California and Texas Fought Covid Their Own Way, Suffered Just the Same” — “When the novel coronavirus struck, California embraced lockdowns and mask mandates. Texas resisted them. Yet almost a year since the U.S. recorded its first Covid-19 case, the two most populous states, so often seen as opposites, find themselves in similar shape, with crippled economies and higher casualties than most nations.”

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