White Memorial Hospital. Photo from Twitter user Doug Duffield

The impact of COVID-19 is very real for two local hospitals, where day-to-day operations have had to shift in order to take care of the large number of coronavirus patients they are treating. While daily numbers of new cases and hospitalizations have been in a downward trend since early January, Boyle Heights continues to be one of Los Angeles’ neighborhoods hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic.

As of Monday, there were a total of 16,703 cases reported in Boyle Heights since the beginning of the pandemic. Within the City of Los Angeles, only the neighborhood of North Hollywood has a higher total. Boyle Heights also has the city’s third highest case rate, following Pacoima and Vernon Central.

According to the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, on Monday there were 4,186 people with COVID-19 hospitalized in all of the county, and 29% of those patients were in the ICU.  For the week ending February 5, the weekly daily average of hospitalizations was 4,608, a decrease of 45% from the peak of 8,065 average daily hospitalizations in early-January.

On January 9, members of the Army Corps of Engineers arrived at Adventist Health White Memorial Hospital in Boyle Heights to help with the influx of patients. At that point, a hospital spokesperson said its ICU capacity was well over 100%.

Since January, however, the number available COVID-19 ICU beds has increased.  “Numbers are following the same trajectory as all of Los Angeles,” said Grace Hauser, communications manager for Adventist health.

Still, the private hospital continues to rely on military personnel to assist in patient care – as many as 20, according to some reports.

“We have National Guard medical personnel helping out, and now we have Air Force and Army medical personnel helping,” said Hauser. “They’re right there, alongside our nurses and taking care of patients.”

A short distance away at LAC + USC Medical Center, emergency room doctor Erika Flores Uribe says she’s had to shift her focus from day-to-day care of patients to individuals suffering from COVID-19. Sometimes that means bringing in an iPad, so that a patient can speak with their loved ones before being placed on a ventilator. In some cases, it will be the last time they get to see or speak to their families.

“I spend four hours there taking care of patients who are very sick, that require a lot of interventions, a lot of oxygen, with my respiratory therapist with my other colleagues, nurses and doctors taking care of patients,” said Flores Uribe, a Boyle Heights resident.

“Unfortunately, over the last several shifts, a lot of that has become dragging an iPad to the bedside so that we can have a space where a family can connect with our patients before we have to intubate them, knowing that, for many of them, that might be the last time that they speak to their family. It’s very different than what it used to be.”

Not all the patients at these hospitals are from Boyle Heights – both White Memorial and LAC + USC receive patients from nearby neighborhoods, including East Los Angeles, which has one of the highest rates of infections in unincorporated county communities.

The high rate of infections in these Eastside communities is related to the fact that many of its residents are workers in essential industries, oftentimes unable to work from home because they are the custodians, the grocers, the restaurant employees who are helping to support the public during the pandemic.

Los Angeles City Councilman Kevin de León, who represents Boyle Heights, says that he is not surprised the numbers are high in the neighborhood.

“I’ve been saying this since day one, that because of high density and because Boyle Heights is surrounded by five major freeways, because we have multi generations under one roof; because we have deep, entrenched poverty; because we have a lot of folks who are actually essential workers and have to work to survive, that it would be very, very predictable that Boyle Heights would be one of the biggest hotspots, not just in LA, but in the entire state of California,” De León said in December. “If COVID-19 is going to have the consequences that we predict it to have, it’s going to disproportionately impact on communities of color, but especially Latino immigrant communities.”

With Los Angeles being one of the nation’s most infectious hotspots, the impact of day-to-day functions are putting more pressure on doctors and medical staff at hospitals that still need to attend regular patients and daily emergencies.

“What we’re seeing is an overwhelming amount of patients coming in requiring intensive care and requiring oxygen and ventilators to support their breathing,” said Flores Uribe at LAC + USC, a public teaching hospital. “We have over 100 beds [for COVID patients] and being able to see how much impact LAC+USC has absorbed and the way it’s been overextended because of COVID-19, and being able to care for communities, its something I’ve never imagined.”

The pandemic is taking its toll on hospital workers throughout the county.

“Our teams are tired, but they have demonstrated commitment and resilience and we’re doing all we can to continue to support these heroes,” said Alicia González, a media consultant at White Memorial. “Our hearts and prayers are with all our patients who are suffering from COVID-19. We’re doing our very best to care for them as quickly as we can during this pandemic.”

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Albert Serna Jr.

Albert Serna Jr. is a queer Chicano journalist from the San Gabriel Valley. He has a passion for news, politics, and investigative reporting. On his free time he reads about true crime and does drag.

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