When the coronavirus pandemic came crashing into town in mid-March, Long Beach hospitals do what they always do in a crisis —pivot to deal with those in need of help.
Leaders at Long Beach Memorial Medical Center and Dignity Health St. Mary Medical Center prepared their facilities to deal with what was expected to be an influx of COVID-19 patients. Those patients would be highly contagious and seriously ill — likely in need of intensive care unit-level care and ventilators.
"We were extremely busy preparing ourselves for the influx," said John Bishop, CEO at Long Beach Memorial and Miller Women's and Children's Hospital. "But it never really came."
Cases where the person needed to be hospitalized stayed steady in the mid-50s to mid-60s for two months. But it took a lot of resources to handle those cases, with isolation, testing and specialized equipment.
And the state decreed that "elective" procedures that could wait without threatening a patient's life had to stop.
"To prepare for a surge of COVID-19 patients, and in accordance with direction from state and local governments, in March the hospital canceled most scheduled procedures and services, which accounted for a large percentage of pre-pandemic revenue," Carolyn Caldwell, president at St. Mary, said in a statement. "As of mid-May, St. Mary Medical Center is safely resuming some scheduled procedures and services, following guidance from the CDC, US Surgeon General, and national clinical associations."
Lakewood Regional Medical Center, which is on the border of north Long Beach and serves many Long Beach patients, faced the same issues, according to the CEO there, John Grah. Lakewood Regional also have returned to offering elective care.
The financial ramifications have been stark. Bishop said that since mid-March, Long Beach Memorial's revenue is down 50%, while expenses only dropped 20%.
"That's a very significant impact," Bishop said. "We do get some money from the (federal) CARES Act and FEMA funding is available, but it's not nearly enough to make up the difference."
St. Mary faces a similar situation.
"The hospital incurred significant expenses to sustain staffing, build surge capacity, and secure equipment while canceling most of our scheduled services," Caldwell said. "The hospital is participating in available federal assistance programs, including FEMA grants under our emergency response."
With the return of elective procedures, the hospital population has rebounded to almost normal at Long Beach Memorial, Bishop said. Normal on the adult side, at least.
"We're only at about three-quarters at Miller Children's," Bishop said. "I understand; the parents are protective of their children. But we're the safety experts here. We test everybody every day. We're all about sanitation. Actually, we're one of the safer places you can be."
Overcoming fear of hospitals can be an issue in normal times. With the highly contagious nature of the coronavirus, it is worse. But avoiding hospitals could actually be dangerous to health, Grah said.
"We also want to encourage patients who are experiencing medical emergencies, such as stroke or heart attack to seek medical attention immediately. Our emergency department has and continues to remain open for treating patients.
"Our facility is safe with special protocols in place to minimize exposure risk for patients, staff, and physicians. We have the appropriate resources, including PPE, to safely care for all of our patients."
Caldwell said the same is true for St. Mary.
"Our mission is to serve our community, and safely resuming procedures is one of the best ways we can help our community heal," she said. "Our hospital is a safe place to receive medical care."
Bishop said some significant good has come from the COVID-19 scramble. For example, the use of tele-health — long-distance doctor visits via telephone or video — has made big advances and will greatly increase the ability to provide care efficiently. And the hospitals are ready for a second round of COVID-19 if necessary.
"Now we have procedures in place," Bishop said. "We have a surge plan. We could go to double what we are treating today."