LOS ANGELES — In a stark reminder of how overstretched hospital care has become across Los Angeles, the Army Corps of Engineers plans to send crews to the region to upgrade the oxygen-delivery systems at a handful of aging hospitals.

News of the deployment comes five days after several L.A. County hospitals declared internal disasters and temporarily turned away all ambulance traffic because their internal oxygen systems began to buckle beneath the high demand of air flow needed by patients packed into COVID-19 wards.

Dr. Christina Ghaly, Los Angeles County health services director, said that the buildings’ old pipes couldn’t maintain sufficient pressure and, at times, started to freeze. In a scramble, Ghaly said, some hospitals were forced to move patients to lower floors, because it’s easier to deliver oxygen there without needing pressure to push it up to higher floors.

Another oxygen-related problem — the chronic shortage of portable tanks — has also hampered hospitals abilities in recent days, county officials said. To discharge recovering patients as quickly as possible and free up space for other, sicker patients, hospitals often send patients home with oxygen tanks.

The team of design and construction experts from the Corps will evaluate six hospitals — Adventist Health White Memorial in Boyle Heights, Beverly Community Hospital in Montebello, Emanate Health Queen of the Valley Hospital in West Covina, Lakewood Regional Medical Center, Mission Community Hospital in Panorama City and PIH Health Hospital in Downey — and then oversee upgrades where they’re deemed necessary.

Mark Ghilarducci, director of the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, said in a statement that the upgrades will “improve the ability to deliver life sustaining medical care to those who need it.”

The assessments are scheduled to begin as soon as Saturday, state officials said.

The basic problem is that patients, suffocating from their inflamed lungs, are demanding oxygen to the extent that some hospitals cannot meet the demand with existing infrastructure.

“Running low of oxygen and oxygen tanks is an issue,” said Cathy Chidester, director of the L.A. County Emergency Medical Services Agency.

“There’s only so much oxygen equipment and vendors that do these supplies of home oxygen therapy,” Chidester said. It has also been difficult to transfer patients who need more specialized care from smaller hospitals to larger facilities that offer better care for patients suffering from things such as trauma, heart attacks and strokes, Chidester said.

Robert Kim-Farley, medical epidemiologist and infectious diseases expert at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, said L.A. County is in the midst of a “viral tsunami,” but “we should not be frozen in despair that there is nothing we can do.”

He said stay-at-home orders have helped reduce the number of infections, even though “many people are choosing to ignore it, and with no strong enforcement.”

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