The coronavirus continues to shatter grim records across California, as the surge in the fast-spreading virus fills hospital beds close to capacity.
California has recorded more than 1.4m cases and close to 20,500 deaths as of Friday morning, with numbers expected to keep rising. Hospitalizations in the state have hit record levels. Admissions to intensive care units have risen roughly 70% in just two weeks, leaving less than 10% of beds available across the state.
Gavin Newsom, the California governor, said this week that to reduce the pressure on hospitals, the state was working with regional leaders to determine where elective surgeries might be canceled to make room for emergency patients. That includes operations like heart valve replacements, tumor removals and preventive services such as colonoscopies. Those procedures are a revenue lifeblood for hospitals, many of which have lost substantial sums when elective procedures were postponed for weeks in California last April.
“Canceling elective procedures really is a last-resort option,” Jan Emerson-Shea, the vice-president of the California Hospital Association, said on Thursday. “However, in the midst of this current surge, which is the largest to date, some hospitals may have no choice.” The biggest challenge currently facing hospitals isn’t bed capacity but shortages of staff, personal protective equipment and testing supplies, Emerson-Shea added.
Public health officials blame the surge on people ignoring safety rules to wear masks and social distance except for with people in their own households. They have voiced fears that Covid 19 infection rates and hospitalizations will continue to soar as people ignore stay-at-home orders to gather for the holidays.
But the restrictions – the toughest since a spring lockdown – have been met with defiance from some business owners who say it will ruin them after nearly a year of seeing their clientele avoid public places because of Covid-19 fears and on-again, off-again restrictions.
Residents in Orange county, the third-largest county in the state, have been among the most critical of Covid-induced business closures and mask-wearing mandates, and their southern California region has now been one of the hardest-hit by the virus.
Ambulances have been waiting for hours to unload patients because Orange county emergency rooms are so backed up, said Dr Carl Schultz with the county’s healthcare agency. In a letter to hospitals, ambulance companies and paramedic providers, Schultz issued a dire warning on Wednesday that the county’s critical care system “may collapse unless emergency directives are implemented” immediately.
“The healthcare system in Orange county is now in a crisis resulting from an overwhelming increase in the number of Covid-infected patients,” said Schultz, the director of emergency medical services for the county of more than 3 million people. In addition to canceling non-emergency surgeries, he urged hospitals to begin expanding capacity.
California’s rural Central Valley has also been hit hard. Six counties there had only 31 ICU beds left as of Friday morning to serve more than 2 million people who live in the area, according to data released by California’s department of public health. The San Joaquin Valley region, which includes those six counties and six others, had the least available space in the state, with only 1.9% ICU capacity.
Los Angeles county, the nation’s largest with 10 million residents, reported about 3,300 people hospitalized with the virus, and at least 23% of them were in intensive care. The county shattered its daily record for new coronavirus cases, with 12,819 reported on Thursday.
“Just in the past two days the number of patients hospitalized with Covid-19 has increased by more than 300. Like a speeding car approaching a cliff, if we do not rapidly change course, we are in jeopardy of catastrophic consequences,” said Dr Paul Simon, the chief science officer with the LA county department of public health.
The county is part of the enormous southern California region that, along with the San Joaquin Valley, contain more than 60% of the state’s 40 million residents.
Last week, the two regions were ordered to follow the strictest anti-Covid-19 rules under a new state stay-at-home order that aims to keep hospitals from being overwhelmed by restricting infectious contacts.
Thirteen other counties in northern California were placed under the restrictions on Thursday, which include closing outdoor restaurant dining along with hair and nail salons and reducing retail store customer capacity. More than 85% of the ICU beds in the Greater Sacramento region are full, the state department of public health announced Wednesday. The restrictions will last at least until 1 January.