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Doctor on COVID-19 hospital capacity: ‘Once that’s saturated, we’re going to have to make hard choices’

Dr. Irmina Sultana Haq, Practicing Primary Care Physician in Los Angeles joins Yahoo Finance Live to discuss why lockdowns are more likely to take place in southern California as COVID-19 cases surge and weigh in on the importance of rolling out COVID-19 vaccines to patients effectively and efficiently.

Video Transcript

- I want to turn our attention back over to the pandemic front. Of course, that was the pressure here mounting and even getting the next round of stimulus through here. At a national level, we've continue to see cases moderate a bit across the US, but that's not the case in parts of California where hospitals are now hitting ICU capacity. And the situation there is expected to worsen with more than 24,000 Californians now dying from covid since the pandemic began. More than 3,000 of those deaths coming in the last two weeks alone.

And now many hospitals are grappling with 0% ICU availability and another expected surge in cases due in, at least a forecast, we're seeing in the next couple of weeks here. So for more on that, we're now joined by Dr. Irmina Sultana Haq, a practicing primary care physician in Los Angeles. And Dr. Haq, appreciate you taking the time to chat with us here. I mean, it sounds like officials are going to maintain lockdown orders in place as they are now, but is that going to be enough given where hospital capacities are at?

- Thank you so much for having me. You know, what I'm seeing on the ground is that the situation is serious. My colleagues and the physicians, nurses, medical personnel are exhausted, overwhelmed, they're being pushed past their limits. As you mentioned, ICU capacity is nearing zero. We had nearly 24,000 deaths, 2.2 million cases. So it's extremely important that citizens of California continue to do their part and stay home, mask up, to stay physically distant because that's the defense that we have.

- Doctor, we have seen California for several weeks now. I have some of the most serious, most stringent restrictions we've seen in place since the pandemic began. Where is the spread actually happening right now? What are you finding? Is it in private homes in these gatherings over the holidays or are there other areas where you're really seeing the spread especially rampant?

DR. IRMINA SULTANA HAQ: Sure. So I serve as a primary care physician for the vulnerable Latino and African-American communities here in Los Angeles. A lot of them are essential workers. And a lot of them have to work, regardless of the lockdown. So I think that that's one area that we're seeing the spread. And I think over the holidays, I think that there were more gatherings in homes, unfortunately. So this is why it's really important that we continue to mask up, stay physically distant, stay home, not travel, and continue to comply with those restrictions.

- And Doctor, obviously all of this is playing out with the eventual hope that you're going to get to the other side when these vaccines start rolling out. Of course, it's been rolled out to a lot of the frontline workers there. When you look at the numbers though, I'd be curious to get your take because we already have, of course, the Pfizer, Moderna vaccines there. Also Novavax, their trial moving into the final stages here in the US and Mexico. But when you do the math on how many are out there, it seems like we'll have about 400 million doses here by the summer of next year. That'd be enough for 200 million people, US population 330 million. So when you start to do the math, where do you put us in terms of the plans here to make sure that other hospital systems don't have to grapple with the same things that you now find yourself grappling with here?

DR. IRMINA SULTANA HAQ: You know, that's an excellent question. I did read about the Novavax vaccine. And I believe that one of the advantages that this vaccine has is that it doesn't require a specialized freezer. However, I think that this is an ongoing discussion. I'm more concerned about the way that the vaccines are going to be distributed and rolled out. I mean, right now we're concentrating on hospital workers. I have not gotten my vaccine yet, but I am in line. I'm waiting to get the vaccine. I'm very cautiously optimistic.

But I think that we have folks in rural communities such as the African-American and Latino community that I mentioned here in Los Angeles, people who are incarcerated, people who live on reservations. So I think that there really needs to be a focused and serious ongoing discussion about how we're going to roll all these doses out. I don't think it's just about the number of doses that we have, but what this plan is going to be going forward. And that's an ongoing discussion.

- Doctor, you alluded to the capacity restraints that a lot of hospitals in California are facing right now. ICU capacity pretty much at zero right now across the state. But I'm curious about the lack of resources that you're seeing. There are these reports today in the "LA Times" talking about no oxygen available at some of these hospitals, which seems like a very basic thing that's necessary, especially in this kind of pandemic. Some hospitals are reporting they're unable to send patients home with the oxygen when necessary, so they can't dispatch some of those patients too. Can you speak to some of the things that you have seen in terms of the lack of resources and what's being done right now in order to address those concerns?

DR. IRMINA SULTANA HAQ: Absolutely, that's an excellent question. As I mentioned, the situation is grave. I think that really speaks to the seriousness of the issue. We have a finite amount of resources. And the surge has been going on for some time. I think people have to remember that right now it's sort of become more well-known, mainstream, but physicians have known about the surge for some time. And I think that we only have a certain number of physicians, nurses, medical personnel to actually administer these resources to patients, as well.

So really what we're trying to do is prevent more cases. We're encouraging people to continue to stay home, mask up, wash their hands, stay physically distant because we only have so much capacity. And once that's saturated, then we're going to have to make hard choices.

- Yeah. And those choices obviously, not even just for covid patients, but just patients in general. Last question to your point on kind of the importance of rolling these things out in vaccinations, I mean, it does seem like a lot of people are excited about the way they rolling out. You haven't gotten yours, obviously you would hope that would be changed soon and quickly in trying to get it out to the front line workers. But beyond frontline workers, once it starts to get into those vulnerable populations, the rate at which this is coming out seems to be alarming some in the medical community when you think about having to hit about 3.5 million vaccinations a day to get to Herd immunity by the summer of next year versus seeing only about a million vaccinations a week right now. And I know it's early stages, but how worried are you that a lot of that stress is going to fall on hospital workers, front line workers if there isn't kind of this effort from a top down level in helping coordinate some of these injections? Because obviously, as you said, you guys are already strapped as is.

DR. IRMINA SULTANA HAQ: I mean, that's an excellent point. As I said, that's an ongoing discussion. I think that right now the focus is on folks that are working inside our hospitals, our emergency rooms, our dialysis centers. And then from my understanding here in California, we're trying to roll it out first to our inpatient teams and then to our outpatient teams. But as I said, this is an ongoing discussion. It's a dynamic issue because on one hand, we're trying to fight this virus and save lives, but on the other hand, we're trying to make sure that the vaccine is rolled out to those who need it. So it's a difficult situation we're grappling with here.