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Dec. 19, 2020, 9:30 a.m. EST

California hospitals operating beyond capacity as coronavirus cases explode

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Associated Press

California hospitals are battling to find beds to house patients amid fears that the exploding coronavirus infection rate will exhaust resources and health care workers.

As of Friday, nearly 17,000 people were hospitalized with confirmed or suspected COVID-19 infections — more than double the previous peak reached in July — and a state model that uses current data to forecast future trends shows the number could reach an unfathomable 75,000 by mid-January.

Read: FDA grants Moderna authorization for a second COVID-19 vaccine

More than 3,500 confirmed or suspected COVID-19 patients were in intensive care units.

Some areas of California are “just right at that cusp of getting overrun,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the country’s top infectious-disease expert, said during an event organized by the California State University system.

Corona Regional Medical Center southeast of Los Angeles has converted an old emergency room to help handle nearly double the usual number of ICU patients. It’s using space in two disaster tents to triage ER patients because the emergency room is filled with patients who need to be hospitalized.

Ambulances can sit for two hours unless they are bringing in patients with critical, life-or-death emergencies.

“There’s no room at the inn, so to speak,” hospital chief executive Mark Uffer said. “Literally every nook and cranny of the hospital is being used.”

It’s a scene playing out across California. According to state data Friday, all of Southern California and the 12-county San Joaquin Valley to the north had exhausted their regular intensive care unit capacity and some hospitals have begun using “surge” space.

In hard-hit Fresno County in Central California, a new 50-bed alternate care site opened Friday near the community Regional Medical Center. The beds for COVID-19-negative patients will free up space in area hospitals, where just 13 of some 150 ICU beds were available Friday, said Dan Lynch, the county’s emergency medical services director.

Lynch said he expects they will have to use the Fresno Convention Center, which can accommodate up to 250 patients, given current demand.

Fresno and three neighboring counties also have taken the unprecedented step of sending paramedics on emergency calls to evaluate people. They won’t be taken to the emergency room if they could go to an urgent care facility or wait a few days to talk to their doctors, Lynch said.

Some hospitals have canceled non-essential elective surgeries, such as hip replacements, that might require beds which may soon be needed for COVID-19 patients. Others are increasing staff hours or moving patients to free up space.

“I’m not going to sugarcoat this. We are getting crushed,” said Dr. Brad Spellberg, chief medical officer at Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center, which has more than 600 beds and is one of the largest hospitals in the county.

Spellberg said every day at his hospital for the last week has begun with no available intensive care beds and a scramble to find room in spaces that don’t usually handle critical patients, like post-surgery recovery areas.

“And it isn’t just COVID patients,” he said. “It’s car accidents and heart attacks and victims of violence. They need a place to go to receive critical care.”

The ever-increasing demand may be straining human resources as well.

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