los angeles, california

Closed in January due to bankruptcy, one of Los Angeles’ oldest hospitals reopened its doors as a Covid-19 surge hospital. St. Vincent Medical Center began taking patients on Monday. With no walk-in emergency department, the facility will take in patients who have tested positive for Covid-19 from other busy Los Angeles hospitals, which are seeing the highest number of cases in the state. As of Sunday, the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health reported 9,192 cases and 296 deaths.

“Really what we provide for the community is a relief valve, a safety valve if you will,” said Dr. David Quam, acting CMO of the Los Angeles Surge Hospital. “Depending on how this pandemic plays out in Southern California, there’s a possibility that hospitals can be overwhelmed. If that happens, we can take some of those patients that might be in the intensive care unit on ventilators.”

Though it would only make sense to put a field hospital in a former hospital, the process of bringing a closed facility back up to speed isn’t as simple as flipping a switch. The hospital rooms had neither beds nor monitors, the IT infrastructure was gone, and some repairs needed to be done.

“We’ve taken a hospital that was taken out of commission, unpacked the boxes, and cleaned and disinfected everything. It’s been a huge, huge undertaking,” Quam said. “We had to build an entire hospital except for the walls in two weeks. It took an army of people from Dignity, Kaiser, the state and the county.”

The State of California currently has a three-month lease on the hospital, which should have 266 beds at full capacity. The County of Los Angeles, Dignity Health and Kaiser Permanente also have a role in the public-private partnership.

The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health Services will coordinate intake and the transfer of patients to and from the field hospital. Dignity Health and Kaiser Permanente will both help manage the hospital, with Dignity Health’s southwest division president Julie Sprengel serving as acting CEO of the field hospital. Quam previously served as an area medical director and chief of staff for Kaiser Permanente before retiring in 2018.

“I knew I wanted to pitch in and help. It’s hard to sit on the sidelines when something like this is going on,” Quam said. “I’ve been involved with a lot of things in my career. This is one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done. Watching this army of people come together, with the sole purpose of relieving the burden of Covid-19 on the community … It’ll be special to me for the rest of my life.”

Quam said the hospital would start with six to eight ICU beds, and 12 to 20 medical-surgical beds. Early on, it will have capacity for about 31 patients on ventilators. It will ramp up in phases as more medical staff is hired and more equipment is secured.

The state is funding the hospitals operations. It will also procure difficult to find items, such as protective equipment and ventilators, and will help recruit people through staffing agencies.

“They are all existing healthcare workers who are licensed and will undergo onsite training and competency validation prior to caring for any patients. Kaiser Permanente and Dignity Health are not deploying employees to work for the Los Angeles Surge Hospital,” Sprengel wrote in an email.

So far, Quam said he had was encouraged by how many staff the hospital had been able to recruit.

“Actually, I’ve been very pleased and heartened by the response from physicians, nurses and ancillary staff. There’s a real desire for people to pitch in and help,” he said. “I’m not going to say it’s not difficult to attract people to a Covid-19 hospital. A lot of it has to do with the mission of the hospital, to serve as a resource for the greater Los Angeles area. I think that resonates with people and makes them want to jump in and help even though it’s going to be a difficult environment.”

So far, the hospital is slated to be open for at least three months, enough to get California through its expected surge of patients. California Governor Gavin Newsom said recently that he expects Covid-19 cases in the state to peak in mid-May.

The ownership of the hospital may change during that time. Biotech billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong, the CEO of NantWorks and owner of the Los Angeles Times, has put in his bid to purchase St. Vincent Medical Center as a Covid-19 treatment campus. Through NantWorks, he had a majority stake in Verity Health’s management company. Verity Health, the owner of St. Vincent, filed for bankruptcy in 2018.

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra previously raised concerns about the purchase of the hospital through the Chan Soon-Shiong foundation as a conflict of interest. Now, Soon-Shiong plans to buy the hospital instead through LLCs for $135 million, a deal that was approved by a federal bankruptcy judge on Friday, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Quam said he didn’t expect any of the dealmaking would affect the work his staff is currently doing. St. Vincent is one of 11 field hospitals opening across the state of California to prepare for a surge of Covid-19 patients.

In New York City, the Javits Center and USNS Comfort currently offer 1,200 added beds. Additional field hospitals in Central Park and St. John the Divine cathedral have reportedly opened.

According to the Washington Post, the convention center and USNS has largely been unused, in part because they have limited ventilators, ICU beds and oxygen. This has led to more restrictive admission conditions for the field hospitals, according to the Post.

Photo credit: choness, Getty Images

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