MLK Jr. Hospital managing the strain of COVID
respond to surge
of cases with
By Sue Favor
SOUTH LOS ANGELES — As coronavirus cases and deaths in Los Angeles County have soared more than tenfold since Thanksgiving, hospitals and medical centers have run out of space for patients.
In a pandemic where COVID-19 has disproportionately affected people of color, it is no surprise that Martin Luther King Jr. Community Hospital in South Los Angeles has been slammed over the last six weeks.
“We are the epicenter of the epicenter,” hospital CEO Dr. Elaine Batchlor said. “COVID is more prevalent in Latino and African-American communities, and almost all of our patients are Latino and African-American.”
And, as other facilities have gasped under the strain of the pandemic, staff at MLK have found solutions to help as many patients as possible, while remaining resilient. Batchlor said her expectations are continually exceeded.
“The staff here are doing an amazing job,” she said. “They are flexible, adaptive, creative and good problem-solvers, and they’ve done an incredible job of expanding our capacity to care for an increasing patient load.
“Every time I think we’ve reached the limit, they go beyond. They have been resourceful at getting supplies and equipment, including [personal protective equipment] and ventilators.”
The hospital has 131 beds, but currently cares for more than 200 patients by making use of every bit of extra space available.
“We’ve doubled up patient rooms, we’ve put up tents outside for triage,” Batchlor said. “We’ve converted the former hospital gift shop into a treatment space, we’ve got gurneys in the chapel meditation room.”
Doctors and nurses who have traditionally performed outpatient care have shifted to inpatient duties. Many are working extra shifts, and medical personnel from other states also have been recruited for duty.
Though it all, the staff at MLK — which consists largely of people of color — has been upbeat. Batchlor said this is because the hospital was uniquely prepared for the pandemic.
“Part of that may have to do with the fact that before COVID, we were dealing with a lot of challenges due to many patients we were seeing with unmet needs in the community,” she said. “We are used to dealing with crisis situations.”
But that is not to say that the fact that the hospital is seeing more people with the virus than ever before is not a significant burden.
“It’s hard for them — it’s a difficult situation,” Batchlor said. “It’s very difficult for our doctors and nurses to see so many people suffering from this disease.”
Going into last weekend, there were 890,031 COVID cases in Los Angeles County, and 11,872 deaths, according to the county Department of Public Health.
The California Department of Public Health numbers show that 55% of COVID cases are in the Latino community, which is 38.9% of the state’s population. Cases among African-Americans, who are 6% of the populous, are 4% of the cases. Whites, which account for more than 36% of state residents, make up just 20% of cases.
Batchlor said South L.A. is not only home to many Latinos and Blacks, but also many front-line workers.
“There are a lot of essential workers who live in our community, including those who stock stores, work in distribution centers, drive public buses and clean, and are exposed on the job,” she said.
People living in shared or crowded housing also plays a role.
“Many residents live in tighter housing, and if one member of the family gets COVID, it can spread,” Batchlor said.
To further complicate matters, underlying health conditions are more prevalent in Latino and African-American populations.
“Our community has a greater prevalence of chronic illnesses that make them more vulnerable to COVID, and cause complications if they do contract the virus,” Batchlor said.
MLK staff have received the Pfizer COVID vaccine, which not only protects them, but serves as reassurance for those they serve.
“We are leading the way and modeling for the community in getting the vaccine,” Batchlor said. “People need to know that the vaccine is safe and effective, and that it’s important to get it to protect themselves and others in the community. That will get us out of the pandemic and get the economy back on track.”
To support staff members, hospital administration created a wellness program.
“We have wellness counselors, who lead regular sessions where people can share their stress and debrief about the emotional challenges,” Batchlor said. “We are also trying to support our staff with food and recognition for the work they’re doing.”
Experts have predicted that virus contraction rates will continue to surge over the next month, while President-Elect Joe Biden, set to take office Jan. 20, has promised a swift vaccine rollout. Despite the uncertainty, Batchlor is confident that MLK personnel will be able to weather the storm.
“It’s definitely a difficult situation and a challenge, but I really admire how they’re rising to that challenge,” she said.
Sue Favor is a freelance reporter for Wave Newspapers, who covers South Los Angeles. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.