California has been celebrated as a Covid-19 model, but these days it’s the country’s biggest Covid hot spot. Politicians believed their strict lockdowns and mask mandates would defeat the virus, but they didn’t, and the latest infection surge has exposed deep problems.
Hospitalizations in California have increased seven-fold since early November and are nearly three times higher than at the summer peak.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom
justified reimposing a lockdown in mid-November based on projections that the state’s health-care system would be overwhelmed by virus cases. Yet state and local officials failed to prepare hospitals for the surge that their models predicted.
As hospitals burst at the seams last month, the state finally rushed to construct field hospitals in some counties. Yet hospitals in Los Angeles have been forced to convert chapels and gift lobbies into makeshift wards. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers last week was deployed to several LA hospitals to fix aging oxygen pipes that were freezing under pressure.
Many hospitals are also short of oxygen tanks for patients to take home so they can free up beds. Patients have waited eight hours in ambulances lined up outside hospitals before being admitted. Ambulance wait times for other emergencies have increased, and “non-essential” care including cancer treatments has been halted.
Los Angeles County Supervisor
late last week implored Mr. Newsom to bring back the USNS Mercy naval ship to relieve pressure on hospitals. The ship was deployed to the Port of LA during the spring for a surge that didn’t happen and then left.
The problem is worse in California in part because its hospitals were ailing before the virus hit. Dozens of hospitals in low-income areas have closed over the past two decades amid financial distress. California has the fewest hospital beds per capita of any state save Oregon and Washington, yet it has many more low-income patients with chronic illnesses.
Blame California’s Medicaid program, which manages to be both too large and miserly. It compensates providers at about half the rate of Medicare and among the lowest rates in the country. About one-third of Californians are covered by Medicaid, and even more in low-income communities like Southeast Los Angeles. These hospitals also provide charity care to undocumented immigrants who are uninsured.
While more care has shifted to outpatient facilities, sick low-income patients wait months for medical appointments since relatively few doctors accept Medicaid. Many die waiting, as the Los Angeles Times reported in September. Older hospitals that treat primarily low-income patients can’t afford to upgrade equipment and facilities.
Compounding these medical-inadequacies is California’s housing shortage caused by restrictive zoning. In low-income areas with high rents like LA, it’s not unusual for five or more people to share a one-bedroom apartment. The Census Bureau ranks Los Angeles the most “over-crowded” large metropolitan area in the U.S. Even while shutting down most businesses, California’s public-health officials admit the virus is spreading mostly in homes.
Per-capita virus cases in California are three times higher in lower-income counties with more crowded housing than in high-income, less dense areas, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data. This large socioeconomic disparity doesn’t exist in most states with large minority populations like Arizona and Texas. When Covid passes, perhaps the progressives in Sacramento can rethink the policies that are failing its people in a crisis.
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