Ambulances at St. Mary Medical Center
Six ambulances are parked at the emergency entrance to St. Mary Medical Center in Apple Valley. REUTERS/Mike Blake

By Norma Galeana and Alan Devall | Reuters

For Southern California ambulance crews, the shifts feel never-ending and the calls to pick up COVID-19 patients seem endless.

“In 30 years, I’ve never seen a call volume like this,” said Eileen Cegarra, 56, an ambulance dispatch center supervisor for Care Ambulance Service, one of the largest ambulance companies in the Los Angeles area, which has become the epicenter of the U.S. coronavirus pandemic.

California hospitals have grown so full of COVID-19 patients that state officials ordered hospitals to delay non-life-threatening surgeries, preserving space for serious cancer removal and necessary heart operations.

Outside many Southern California hospitals, ambulances loaded with COVID-19 patients wait for hours until space becomes available in the intensive care unit or emergency room.

Beside affecting the patients, the backlog has taken its toll on the ambulance crews who respond to calls for the sick.

“The calls don’t stop just because the crews are in the ER,” Cegarra said.

Jennifer Mueller, 30, works 24-hour shifts as a Care emergency medical technician, saying the pandemic has taken a physical and emotional toll on those in her profession.

“Everyone’s exhausted. Everyone’s tired. We run the calls; we want to help people. But there’s only so much that we can do,” Mueller told Reuters during a spare moment.

Patients are left sitting on hard gurneys in the cold. About all Mueller said she can do is offer a blanket.

“They’re in pain,” she said. “It’s just, it’s heartbreaking.”

In Los Angeles County, with a population of about 10 million, COVID-19 kills someone every eight minutes, health officials say.

Every minute, 10 people test positive in L.A. County, and more than 1 percent of those who test positive end up dead, according to the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health.

Dispatcher Jaime Hopper, 29, has seen the tragedy first hand.

“The other day I had I think at one time nine calls sitting. So, that’s nine people that are in distress,” Hopper said. “So, it’s a little bit, it’s unnerving, but you kind of just got to do what you can.”