FILE - In this April 18, 2020, file photo, partitions are installed between beds as Sleep Train Arena is turned into a 400-bed emergency field hospital to help deal with the coronavirus, in Sacramento, Calif. Due to the recent spike in COVID-19 cases officials are rushing to reopen the former home of the NBA's Sacramento Kings, to patients. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File)

California’s hospitals filling up as virus cases skyrocket

California’s hospitals filling up as virus cases skyrocket

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Some California hospitals are close to reaching their breaking point, prompting Gov. Gavin Newsom to bring in hundreds of hospital staff from outside the state and to prepare to re-start emergency hospitals that were created but barely used when the coronavirus surged last spring.

California officials paint a dire picture of overwhelmed hospitals and exhausted health workers as the state records an average of 22,000 new cases a day. After nine months of the pandemic, they recognize about 12% of people who test positive will end up in the hospital two to three weeks later. At the current rate, that means 2,640 hospitalizations from each day’s new case total.

“We know that we can expect in the upcoming weeks alarming increases in hospitalizations and deaths,” said Barbara Ferrer, health director for Los Angeles County, the state’s largest with 10 million residents.

For some, “the respiratory infection becomes unbearable — they have difficulty breathing and it’s very frightening,” said California Hospital Association president and CEO Carmela Coyle. What starts with a spike in emergency room visits can cascade into jammed hospital beds and ultimately intensive care units.

California’s hospitalizations already are at record levels, and the state has seen a roughly 70% increase in ICU admissions in just two weeks, leaving just 1,700 of the state’s 7,800 ICU beds available.

“That fragile but important system may be overwhelmed,” Dr. Mark Ghaly, the state’s top public health officer, said Tuesday. “And the goal of saving lives becomes threatened when that system isn’t as robust and as strong as it can be.”

Several hospitals in Los Angeles County and others in San Diego, Imperial and Fresno counties are among those close to running out of intensive care beds that are needed for the sickest patients.

In response, California has requested nearly 600 health care workers to help in ICUs through a contracting agency and the federal government. It’s starting a two-day program to train registered nurses to care for ICU patients and setting up links for doctors to consult remotely on ICU patients. Some hospitals are postponing elective surgeries to free up staff and beds.

“Without some major change in our overall behaviour … we will see hospitals continue to feel that pressure and get overwhelmed,” Ghaly warned.

With that tragic scene in mind, Gov. Gavin Newsom recently imposed an overnight curfew, a ban on nonessential travel, and issued stay-home orders in regions where open ICU beds have dipped below 15%.

Similar concerns about patient overload and staffing shortages faded during the initial months of the pandemic, leaving most of the state’s auxiliary surge hospitals barely used. But now capacity is dwindling even before the impact of infections spread by those who ignored entreaties to stay home for Thanksgiving.

County health officials point to a spike in health care workers themselves becoming infected and a dearth of travelling nurses who are busy in other states dealing with their own unprecedented spikes.

When specially trained critical care nurses become overwhelmed, hospitals will likely first draft post-surgery nurses to fill the void. And if they too are swamped, hospitals will shift to a team approach, where a critical care nurse oversees others with less training who can still perform many duties.

That would require waiving strict nurse-to-patient ratios that are uniquely written into law in California, something the California Nurses Association argues would inevitably endanger patients’ care.

Riverside University Health System Medical Center, for instance, has opened an ICU in a former storage room, chief executive Jennifer Cruikshank told Riverside County supervisors on Tuesday. An ICU nurse who typically cares for two patients is now taking care of three, she said, and doctors and housekeepers are taking extra shifts.

In another attempt to help, the state is activating the first two of 11 alternative care sites that have a total capacity of 1,862 beds.

A site in hard-hit Imperial County, on the border with Mexico, already has 19 of its 25 available beds in use, though it can expand to handle 115 patients.

The second site is at the former home of the Sacramento Kings professional basketball team. The goal is to have the first 20 beds ready by Wednesday in a practice gymnasium, then prepare another 224 beds in the main arena — some in luxury suites where well-heeled fans once watched games.

It’s still unclear what patients will be placed there, Office of Emergency Services spokesman Brian Ferguson said.

Last spring the state spent $12 million initially setting up the arena and hiring roughly 250 medical workers who were told to expect 30 to 60 patients within days. But only nine arrived over the next 10 weeks, leaving doctors frustrated before the site was put back into mothballs.

It will be staffed this time with California Medical Assistance Teams, which usually respond to disasters like wildfires, and members of Newsom’s California Health Corps — paid volunteers who are often recently retired medical professionals. The state also is seeking workers from contract medical providers and the federal government.

Newsom wants more volunteers after his corps dwindled to fewer than 900 members, less than 1% of the 93,000 who originally signed up.

Only 10 corps members were recently assisting at hospitals and nursing homes. But program spokesman Rodger Butler said some have previously assisted in intensive care units and Newsom on Monday said the program “has been incredibly effective, particularly in our skilled nursing facilities,” with members helping at more than 100 facilities statewide.

Coyle said the corps isn’t a major help for hospitals “because the patients we are caring for are among the most acutely ill and very few of the Health Corps volunteers were trained at that highest level.”

Fresno County has been pleading for state help to staff three area hospitals for several weeks, but was sent just one or two workers for each amid the nationwide shortage, county Emergency Medical Services Director Daniel Lynch said.

“We’re fulfilling what we can, but it is getting harder,” Ghaly said.

Fresno officials urged the state to open 123 alternative care beds ready for use at Porterville Development Center in Tulare County, but Lynch said they were told the state’s priority is the Sacramento arena. Now county officials are considering putting overflow beds in the Fresno Convention Center.

Ferguson defended the state’s approach of having “flexible” alternative care sites that could serve residents displaced from nursing homes or skilled nursing facilities, or absorb some of hospitals’ less serious patients.

“This is kind of what the next stage of this looks like, if things go back to really bad,” Ferguson said.

____

Associated Press writers Brian Melley contributed from Los Angeles, Amy Taxin from Orange County and Daisy Nguyen from Oakland.

Don Thompson, The Associated Press

Coronavirus

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Canadian Pacific Rail locomotives sit idle at the company’s Port Coquitlam yard east of Vancouver, B.C., on May 23, 2012. Canadian Pacific Railway Ltd. says it will seek shareholder and regulatory approval for a five-for-one split of its common shares. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
CP Rail beats earnings forecasts as Q4 profit up 21 per cent despite softer revenues

Coal volumes fell one per cent, energy down 27 per cent

FILE - In this Jan. 3, 2019, file photo, a man leaves an Apple store in Beijing. Apple says it will roll out a new privacy control in spring 2021 to prevent iPhone apps from secretly shadowing people. (AP Photo/Andy Wong, File)
Apple to crack down on tracking iPhone users in early spring

App Tracking Transparency will be part of software update

A lone passenger stands outside the International Arrivals area at Pearson Airport in Toronto on Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2021. As the federal government prepares to slap new restrictions on foreign arrivals, Health Canada data suggest a growing number of infections directly connected to international travel. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn
Holiday season vacations coincide with rise in COVID-19 travel-related cases

486 COVID-19 cases diagnosed in recent travellers in December

Grant Hunter, associate minister of red tape reduction, is proud of the work his ministry has done over the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo contributed)
Alberta gets A for red tape reduction

The Alberta government is getting a thumbs up for its work on… Continue reading

People protest against new anti-abortion laws, near the ruling Law and Justice party headquarters in Warsaw, Poland Wednesday Jan. 27, 2021, to protest after the country’s top court on Wednesday confirmed its highly divisive ruling that will further tighten the predominantly Catholic nation’s strict anti-abortion law. The Constitutional Tribunal published the justification of its decision, which will take immediate effect.(AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)
Poland: Near-total abortion ban takes effect amid protests

People poured onto the streets of Warsaw and other cities late Wednesday

Canada’s Rachael Karker competes during the women’s World Cup freestyle ski halfpipe event in Calgary, Alta., Saturday, Feb. 16, 2019. The X Games are Karker’s first and perhaps only chance to compete this season. The Canadian freestyle skier’s breakout performances in Aspen, Colo., the last two years launched her into the world’s elite in halfpipe. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
X Games an island in a competition desert for Canada’s top boarders, freestyle skiers

Rachael Karker will drop into the Buttermilk Mountain halfpipe Friday

Canada’s Haley Smith makes a jump during the women’s cross-country race at the Nerrang mountain bike trails during the 2018 Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast, Australia, Thursday, April 12, 2018. When COVID-19 swept across the country last spring, forcing lockdowns and cancelling sporting events, Canadian mountain biker Haley Smith’s response was swift — train harder. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Rick Rycroft
Canadian mountain biker Haley Smith climbing back from ‘rock bottom’

For years Smith has spoken about living with anxiety and her eating disorder

A carved stone pillar is shown in this July 2020 handout photo. The Royal B.C. Museum says it has confirmed a carved stone pillar found at low tide on a beach in Victoria last summer is an Indigenous artifact. The museum says in a news release it will work with the Songhees and Esquimalt First Nations to determine the most suitable home for the pillar carved with the features of a face. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO - Royal BC Museum, Grant Keddie
Carved stone pillar found on B.C. beach identified as Indigenous artifact

Museum working with Songhees and Esquimalt First Nations

Fashion mogul Peter Nygard is shown during a bail hearing in Winnipeg on Jan. 19, 2021, in this courtroom sketch. Lawyers for Nygard are back in court today arguing for his release as the Canadian fashion mogul faces charges of sex trafficking and racketeering in the United States. Nygard, who is 79, was arrested last month in Winnipeg under the Extradition Act and faces nine counts in the southern District of New York. His lawyers are expected to present a new bail plan after the judge presiding over the bail hearing criticized the previous one. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Tadens Mpwene
Bail hearing continues for fashion king Peter Nygard on U.S. sex charges

Nygard has the means to flee, say federal lawyers

FILE - Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford has his final meeting of the season with the media at the NHL hockey team's practice facility in Cranberry, Pa., in this Wednesday, May 9, 2018, file photo. Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford, a Hall of Famer who helped lead to a pair of Stanley Cup titles, resigned abruptly on Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2021. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar, File)
Penguins GM Jim Rutherford, who oversaw Cup wins, resigns

Penguins GM Jim Rutherford, who oversaw Cup wins, resigns

Outfielder George Springer is shown in a screengrab from a virtual news conference he took part in on Wednesday, Jan.27, 2021. Springer says he's excited to be a part of a young, talented team like the Toronto Blue Jays, a club he believes has plenty of potential. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO
Blue Jays introduce outfielder George Springer after signing him to six-year deal

Blue Jays introduce outfielder George Springer after signing him to six-year deal

Bucs fans set to cheer inside, outside Super Bowl stadium

Bucs fans set to cheer inside, outside Super Bowl stadium

Most Read