Editor's note: Spectrum News 1 reporter Itay Hod went inside an ICU in Los Angeles County for a firsthand look at the pandemic's impact.
This is Part 2 of his report. For Part 1, click here.
TORRANCE, Calif. — ICU rooms packed with patients on the brink of death—this is what the post-holiday surge looks like up close.
"We've lost so many people, it's hard to even quantify," said Dean Salangsang, an ICU nurse at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center in Torrance. "Far too may as far as I'm concerned."
Since March, Salangsang said, his days have been a blur.
"Working in the ICU can be exhausting but never to this degree," he said. "After a shift, you're left completely drained."
Patients arrive at his ICU at a moment's notice. For example, the emergency department transferred a woman in her 50s. Salangsang and his team spring into action, getting her vitals and prepping her for intubation as quickly as possible.
It's a scene straight out of a sci-fi movie. Like other hospitals in Los Angeles, Harbor-UCLA has been overrun by the pandemic. There are now patients on almost every floor. Salangsang has been assigned to one of several makeshift ICUs that have sprung up to accommodate the influx of patients. Rooms at Harbor-UCLA have been sealed off and turned into negative pressure chambers.
This week marks the year anniversary of the first COVID-19 case diagnosed in Los Angeles County. On Tuesday, barbershops and nail salons were allowed to reopen after Gov. Gavin Newsom lifted the statewide stay-at-home orders. But health officials stress that even though COVID-19 cases are trending downward, the virus remains rampant.
"A lot of people are under the impression that it's not as bad or that this wave that we're currently in is much better," Salangsang said. "A lot of people don't get to see what it's like here in the hospital, but it's only gotten worse."
There are four patients per room, all heavily sedated and on ventilators. Nurses stand outside each door, ready to help in any way they can.
There are no communication systems in place in these makeshift areas because they were never meant for intensive care. Doctors and nurses have improvised, using baby monitors to communicate with those treating patients inside the rooms.
"It's just taking medicine to just a very different realm," said Dr. Janine Vintch, a pulmonary critical care physician. "I'm used to being able to have families at the bedside where I can explain how sick their loved ones are, and I could actually go in and just walk up to a bedside and hold my patient's hand or from their forehead or try to just be there with them. And now we're in plastic gowns, all this material on. I can't even recognize one person to another half the time."
Even as the surge begins to show signs of slowing, the hospital still has double the amount of COVID-19 patients it had during its summer peak.
The explosion of COVID-19 cases has affected every area of the hospital, including the main adult emergency room, which was turned into a COVID-19 ICU. But even that has done little to help. Capacity here is at 150%, according to the hospital.
"Our doctors are running around, and our nurses are really stretched super thin," said Dr. Andrea Wu, director of the adult emergency department. "That feeling of stress is something that we in the emergency department trained for. That is our expertise, but it's now gone to a home with a level where even for us, it's getting really hard."
With so many patients arriving here every day, there are simply not enough medical workers to treat them. Earlier this month, 150 military medical personnel from the Air Force and Army began deploying to California, with 20 of them assigned to Harbor-UCLA.
But even with all the help, many, if not most, of these patients will never leave the hospital. For Salangsang, that's the hardest part.
"It's hard to see people go through this," he said. "These patients that are lying here in these beds, on these ventilators, are someone's mom and dad, brothers, sisters. Of course, when they deteriorate, it's very hard on us."
The last few months, he said, have been challenging both physically and emotionally. For now, he said all he can do is take it day by day and hope that he and his team are ready for whatever comes next.