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St. Mary Medical Center

As the number of confirmed cases of the new coronavirus continues to grow in the city and county, one looming question is how well local hospitals are prepared for the health crisis to potentially surge locally.

Long Beach seems well-positioned, with multiple facilities available: Long Beach Medical Center, College Medical Center, St. Mary Medical Center, the VA Long Beach Healthcare System — and, now, Community Hospital, which will open its doors to transfer patients Saturday, March 21.

Representatives from those hospitals have been quick to share that they are ready for a surge but have been more reluctant to provide details. One doctor at St. Mary’s, however, agreed to speak more candidly about how his facility is handling the new coronavirus, officially known as COVID-19. The doctor requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press.

A spokeswoman for Dignity Health, which operates St. Mary Medical Center, declined to make hospital leadership available for an interview, citing the current focus on patient care. But the company provided a statement on the topic.

“We want to assure the community that St. Mary Medical Center is closely monitoring all developments with COVID-19 and are prepared to identify, isolate, and treat any potential patient who seeks care at our facility,” Dignity Health’s statement said. “St. Mary Medical Center has the supplies and equipment needed to effectively manage the care of any suspected or confirmed COVID-19 patients.”

The doctor on Friday, March 20, agreed with that overall assessment and said staff acted early to ensure patients’ health and safety.

He could not provide a precise number of how many beds or ventilators were available at the hospital. But he said he believes the public focus on those numbers, at least locally, is misplaced.

“In terms of beds and ventilators, we are fine,” he said. “We can handle the surge as it happens. We handle a lot of stuff, and in fact, St. Mary is a disaster resource center for the county, which a lot of people don’t know. So we are built for problems.”

Along with other hospitals, he said, St. Mary has limited the number of visitors allowed. People in the intensive care unit or people having surgeries, for example, are limited to one visitor.

“The next important thing they did was limit surgeries,” he said. “So now they are only doing emergency surgeries and urgent elective surgeries, which means any surgery that can’t be safely postponed.”

Many surgeries that were scheduled for this week, he said for example, have now been moved to three weeks from now. So people will still get the care they need, but the less urgent work may happen a little more slowly.

As far as testing for COVID-19 goes, he said, the regulations around testing have been frustrating. Until a few days ago, if a doctor in the emergency room suspected a patient of having the coronavirus, he or she would have to notify the Public Health Department, which would send someone to assess the patient and determine if a test was necessary.

While that may be changing, he said, there still aren’t nearly enough tests for everyone who might have the virus — and even if there were, the doctor added, it’s not clear how much good that would do since many people are asymptomatic.

“We do have to be judicious,” he said. “In a perfect world, we have innumerable tests. But still, the only reason to test everybody is if you want to scientifically determine the percentage of people carrying it, and that’s going to do us no good right now. Right now, we need to focus on the sick.

“We do have a limited number of tests,” he added. “We don’t have enough, so we should save it for the sickest people to make sure that if they do have the coronavirus, we isolate them.”

One problem that St. Mary’s faces, though, is a lack of blood.

“That’s a big problem,” he said. “We are so short of blood because people aren’t donating.”

The doctor said the hospital isn’t using that much more blood than usual at the moment, but the supply has dried up. So, he said, people looking to help should donate blood.

But overall, the message the doctor gave was that his hospital and the rest of the staff are prepared for what’s to come.

“It’s stressful, but we’re going to be okay,” he said. “The most important thing to know in terms of COVID-19 is that we are doing the right thing right now for Long Beach.

“We are all on the same page,” the doctor added. “We’ve got this.”

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