TORRENCE, CA - DECEMBER 29: Hospital doctors and nurses treat Covid-19 patients in a makeshift ICU wing on the West Oeste at Harbor UCLA Medical Center on Tuesday, Dec. 29, 2020 in Torrence, CA. The hospital has no open beds for incoming patients and have worked tirelessly to create additional beds for the influx of Covid-19 patients. (Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

At ProPublica, reporters David Armstrong and Marshall Allen tell the story of 53-year-old Miguel Fernandez, a Latino man from California who contracted the virus last fall. The center of a tight-knit, multigenerational family, Miguel fought for his life in hospital as his loved ones pushed to get him life-saving extracorporeal membrane oxygenation treatment — a specialized therapy that doctors are now in the horrific position of having to reserve for younger patients with the best chance of surviving, as critically ill COVID-19 patients overwhelm a healthcare system stretched far beyond usual limits.

But starting in early November, the daily number of COVID-19 hospitalizations surged in Los Angeles County, rising eightfold between then and the wave’s crest, which arrived just after New Year’s Day. Within weeks, overflowing hospitals faced exactly the types of care-rationing decisions experts had feared. Hospitals set up tents to increase capacity, and ambulances circled for hours as they waited for beds to open. By early January, Los Angeles County emergency medical personnel were directed to conserve supplemental oxygen by only administering it to the neediest patients, and to stop transporting to hospitals cardiac arrest patients who couldn’t be revived in the field. State officials dispatched refrigerated trucks and thousands of body bags to the region.

Miguel didn’t want to go to the hospital. He knew people like him were dying. Latino Angelenos have suffered the highest COVID-19 death rate in Los Angeles County — almost twice the rate of Blacks and about three times the rate for whites.

The separation was especially difficult for Alejandrina, who had been married to Miguel since 1991. Miguel liked to tease her when she watched her Mexican telenovelas: Why do you watch those shows when you have me? On Mother’s Day earlier in the year, Miguel had surprised her by buying a pair of rings, getting down on one knee and proposing again. The couple made plans to renew their vows on their 30th wedding anniversary this summer. When he became sick with COVID-19, Miguel assured Alejandrina he would get better so they could get married again. She promised she would wait for him.

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