Feb 15, 2021
In Los Angeles, Martin Luther King Jr. Community Hospital has been hit harder by the pandemic than any other hospital in Los Angeles County, as well as any in the entire state of California. During the height of the pandemic, this small public hospital was treating more COVID patients than some Los Angeles medical centers three or four times as big.
M.L.K. hospital is located in the heart of South Los Angeles, a vast, impoverished area of over a million people in which a big part of the population suffers from chronic health problems. These problems are made worse by the lack of adequate healthcare. There are so few primary care doctors or medical services in South Los Angeles, it is often referred to as a “medical desert.”
When the pandemic surged this winter, it spread quickly through the largely Hispanic and Black population in South Los Angeles. Many are essential workers who caught the disease working in close quarters with other workers with few safety measures applied. Because of the lack of affordable housing and extreme overcrowding, those workers often infected their families. And their health problems were often made worse because they couldn’t ever reach a doctor before finally going to the hospital.
Gravely ill patients had practically nowhere to go but M.L.K., which was literally overrun. M.L.K is a small 131-bed hospital, with limited services: emergency surgery only (most commonly amputations for diabetes patients), no pediatric care, no neonatal intensive care, no trauma center, no inpatient psychiatric or addiction treatment.
By late January, the small 29-bed emergency room was packed with 104 patients, 44 of whom had been admitted and were lining hallways or in outdoor tents awaiting beds in the I.C.U. or medical wards. Patients had been stuck in the emergency department for up to two weeks.
An E.R. doctor was assigned to respond to Code Blues—calls for resuscitation efforts—around the hospital.
M.L.K. cleared out an entire medical ward to create an expanded intensive care unit, mostly for ventilator patients—two to a room, with thick plastic sheets hanging over the open doors. The makeshift I.C.U. at its peak held 40 patients, four times the usual pre-pandemic census and far sicker overall than what the staff was used to handling.
One visiting specialist from the much better equipped UCLA hospital said that on arrival he “literally felt like it was a war zone,” with more deaths, fewer resources and staff under far greater stress than in the I.C.U. at his much larger hospital. “It was a form of critical care I’d never witnessed,” he said.
In the best of times, M.L.K. cannot match what many other hospitals offer. Now, amid the pandemic, the hospital can’t test experimental therapies, such as the kind that Trump was treated with when he came down with COVID, nor can it draw on a large pool of specialized staff in a surge. But when doctors at M.L.K. pushed to transfer some of their patients to hospitals that offered more advanced therapies, they were never successful. “Nobody wants their insurance,” one doctor told the New York Times (February 8).
Is it any wonder that the most impoverished Los Angeles residents, many of them around the hospital in South Los Angeles, are dying of the disease at four times the rate of the wealthiest.
“We’ve created a separate and unequal hospital system and a separate and unequal funding system for low-income communities,” said M.L.K.’s chief executive, Dr. Elaine Batchlor. “And now with Covid, we’re seeing the disproportionate impact.”
In fact, the disastrous toll is nothing but the reflection of a class society run in the interests of the capitalist class at the expense of the working masses.