OC Fairgrounds Being Considered for COVID-19 Hospital Overflow

JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

The OC Fair Park Plaza inside the county fairgrounds in Costa Mesa on Jan. 12, 2019.

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As Orange County hospitals prepare for a wave of coronavirus cases to hit emergency rooms in the coming weeks, officials are considering the OC Fairgrounds in Costa Mesa for overflow hospital capacity, if the need arises.

The discussions are still in their early stages, according to officials close to the discussions.

“The Orange County Fairgrounds are being looked at in advance planning for overflow for hospitals,” officials at the county Emergency Operations Center said in a written response to Voice of OC when asked for comment for this article. The statement did not say who wrote it.

The request from county officials comes as local hospitals expand capacity by setting up “surge” tents in their parking lots, cancelling non-essential procedures, and potentially placing extra beds in operating rooms.

Gov. Gavin Newsom said Monday that California will need an extra 50,000 hospital beds statewide to prepare for the rise in coronavirus cases, 17,000 of which are being sought outside hospital systems at places like fairgrounds, hotels, motels and convention centers.

County officials, who are in charge of the local emergency response, did not have answers Thursday about how many additional hospital beds are needed in the county for the projected surge. Orange County has about 8 percent of the statewide population, though the need for hospital beds varies by region.

County health officials plan to do an assessment of the OC Fairgrounds as soon as Thursday, with further discussions expected next week, fairgrounds spokeswoman Terry Moore said Thursday.

A field hospital is planned at the Riverside County Fairgrounds in Indo, to be built by the California National Guard using emergency hospital equipment from the federal government.

New York City also is moving to set up an emergency hospital at a convention center, including beds for people who do not need intensive care, to be built by that state’s national guard.

Several hospitals in New York City have been overwhelmed by coronavirus cases, according to news reports citing doctors there. The hospital’s morgues were reaching or exceeding their capacity, with refrigerated trucks being called in to hold the remains of patients who died.

In Orange County, the 25 existing hospitals reported that they were operating within capacity as of Thursday. About two-thirds of OC hospitals have set up “surge tents” to add capacity.

But in looking ahead at the expected wave of cases coming their way, hospitals and other emergency medical responders reported an overwhelming shortage of protective equipment like N95 masks and disinfectant wipes, according to records reviewed by Voice of OC.

And there’s been confusion this week over how much of Orange County’s supply requests have actually been received, including 1 million-plus N95 masks the county requested on March 14.

For the past four days, Voice of OC has asked the county Emergency Operations Center what its supply asks are and their status, and there was no answer as of Thursday regarding the million mask request. The requests reportedly were spread out in a series of different documents rather than one centralized tracking system.

On Wednesday, high-ranking county officials themselves expressed uncertainty to their colleagues about how many masks have been received out of the 1 million-plus that were requested.

Orange County, like many communities across the nation, is in the midst of a wartime-like effort to stop the spread of coronavirus and get enough equipment and medical staff in place to treat people with life-threatening symptoms.

One of the last pandemics on this scale was the 1918 flu, which killed more Americans than both world wars combined. The social distancing measures currently in place in California will dramatically reduce the number of deaths, health experts say.

The county fairgrounds itself has history with wartime efforts. It is the largest remaining publicly-owned piece of the former Santa Ana Army Air Base, where more than 125,000 American pilots were trained during World War II. The air base also is one of the two main settings in the war novel Catch-22.

Public health experts have urged American communities to set up places where people with mild coronavirus symptoms have the option to recover, since existing guidance of recovering at home can spread the virus to family members.

Officials apparently have not yet pursued such medical facilities in Orange County, or most communities in California. People with mild symptoms in OC are advised to stay home and isolate, despite the risk of the virus spreading unintentionally within their home.