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With the highest cases in the country, CA has one of the lowest inoculation rates

California has one of the lowest COVID-19 vaccination rates in the country, as the state struggles to contain the virus, which has been raging to new highs since the holidays. LA Times reporter Soumya Karlamangla joins Hari Sreenivasan to discuss the vaccination process in the state and how LA is scrambling to treat patients as hospital beds fill up.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    For more on the COVID-19 outbreak in California, I spoke with Soumya Karlamangla, health reporter for the Los Angeles Times.

    So, Soumya, big picture, where is Los Angeles in terms of dealing with COVID-19 over the holidays and after we just saw the situation getting worse and suddenly we seem normalized to what is happening in the hospitals there?

  • Soumya Karlamangla:

    Yeah, we're sort of in this holding pattern right now. We did see cases kind of climb and climb and climb. And then everyone was really worried about what was going to happen over Christmas and New Year's. And so far, we haven't seen a really obvious surge.

    We were worried about this surge on top of a surge, which is kind of the worst case scenario. You already have the hospitals at capacity. What happens if you have even more patients? And while we haven't seen cases begin to drop, we are seeing a lower number of people in the hospital each day, which seems like the Thanksgiving surge is dying down. And whatever we are going to see from Christmas, it seems every single day gets a little bit clearer that this surge, if it even is a surge, is going to be blunted.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    So what is the situation in hospitals now? Are they still at full capacity?

  • Soumya Karlamangla:

    Yeah, it's kind of alarming that this has become normal. But we have about, I think, 7,600 people in the hospital in L.A. County with Covid and in the summer, which, you know, that was our big peak, everyone was worried about what's happening in California in July. We had 2,200 at our peak in July. And there are many hospitals where there are no ICU beds available and maybe there are literal beds, but there aren't any staff to staff these beds. And so functionally there are no beds for patients at certain hospitals.

    So we've gotten into the situation over the past several weeks where someone calls 911, they've gotten an ambulance and then the ambulance drives around for hours looking for a place to drop off the patient. There was a report from the County Health Department this week that said that there was at least one ambulance that couldn't find a place to offload their patient for 17 hours.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Oh, my gosh.

  • Soumya Karlamangla:

    In that situation, you have people, paramedics doing CPR in the ambulance, doing procedures in the ambulance. You have doctors coming into the ambulance to do whatever they need to do. And in some cases, the paramedics will take the patients out and put them wherever they can.

    So there are hospitals where they had patients in hospital gift shops, in hallways, in conference rooms. And we are, as the officials say, decompressing a little bit. Our numbers are coming down, but I think our peak was 7,900 or maybe even above 8,000. And now we're at 7,500. So we haven't escaped this situation quite yet.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    So the hospitals are sending the ambulances away because they're too full. That's why the ambulances are driving around?

  • Soumya Karlamangla:

    Yeah. So hospitals have this sort of internal system where they say this is how many patients we have, this is how much room we have in our hospital. And that's how an ambulance, how a paramedic, will decide which hospital I'm going to go take this patient to. And if the hospital is full and their E.R. doesn't have any more space, they'll sort of mark in the system like we're full, you can't come here.

    And it got to a place in December where for multiple hours in a day, every single hospital was full. And so it happens when a regional hospital is full they are forced to circle, and at some point the officials like to say this, when everyone is closed, everyone is open.

    If you're a hospital that has a million patients, because you're living through the surge, but so does every other hospital, you have to keep taking them. And so ambulances are either circling or they're just offloading them in places they shouldn't be offloaded because they have no other choice.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    So are there specific populations that are being impacted worse than others?

  • Soumya Karlamangla:

    Yeah, we've seen this throughout the pandemic, but interestingly, the disparities that we see get wider when the cases surge. So we've consistently seen higher rates of cases and deaths among Latinos proportionally. So it's not just that California and L.A. in particular is a plurality, if not majority of Latinos. We're actually seeing the rates of those cases, being much higher among Latinos. And that's largely because they're essential workers, they might live in multigenerational households.

    And then we could see it track very similarly with poverty levels. The sort of lower your socioeconomic status, the more likely you are to have gotten COVID and more likely you are to have died from COVID.

    And one of the stranger things that's happened in L.A., we had this gap between Latinos and everyone else. And over the summer when cases were surging and then we closed the gap where the cases were kind of there wasn't such a big disparity and the officials were proud of that. And now the gap has widened again, which I think speaks to the fact that we have so much to viral spread.

    But we also have so many people still going into workplaces. An essential worker's chance of getting exposed has just gone up exponentially. And those workers tend to be Latino.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    How is this impacting vaccinations? I mean, we've seen reports that the vaccination is not nearly as fast as it needs to be in California.

  • Soumya Karlamangla:

    Yeah, California has really struggled with vaccination. We rank in the bottom five states in terms of the percentage of our population that we vaccinated nationwide. And there are states that have vaccinated upwards of five percent of their population and we're still hovering around one or two percent. And that sort of cuts both ways.

    I mean, we are vaccinating more people, just raw numbers of people than anyone else because the state is so big. But that also means that there are huge numbers of people who aren't vaccinated and a lot of people still susceptible to fuel an outbreak. So we're going really slow. And that's something we've been trying to look into. We have reporters on this issue and it seems like there's various bottlenecks, but it largely comes down to staffing the people who need to administer a vaccine. It's like the systems haven't been stood up properly. And also the people who would be administering a vaccine are also often the people who are treating Covid patients in the hospital.

    So California is probably one of the states that needs a vaccine the most because we are dealing with this terrible surge. But we're also one of the states and the hardest time administering the vaccine because of our terrible surge.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Soumya Karlamangla of the L.A. Times, thanks so much for joining us.

  • Soumya Karlamangla:

    Thanks for having me.

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