As hospitals prepare for a surge in COVID-19 cases in the coming days and weeks, Orange County officials committed for the first time Monday to following other counties in posting data on how many people are hospitalized.
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Officials announced their plans during a 2 p.m. news conference in response to a question from Voice of OC, which for nearly a week has been pressing county health care agency officials to disclose the number of people hospitalized for COVID and how many surge beds are being pursued.
“We are working presently to get hospitalization data posted on our website. I’m hoping that will be up within the next day or two,” said David Souleles, Orange County’s director of public health services.
County officials, he added, are “continuing to evaluate the data that makes the most sense to put out for the public, and for all of us from a planning perspective and to understand what’s going on moving forward.”
“All hospitals [In Orange County] with emergency departments are operational and have cancelled all non-essential services, and are actively preparing for patient surge,” Soulelas added. Most of the 25 hospitals in OC have sent up “surge tents” outside to prepare, according to a county report Monday that officials did not publicize.
Voice of OC reported Friday that San Diego County and other counties have been posting the number of people people hospitalized for COVID-19 in their area, as well as how many people are in intensive care beds.
To date, Orange County has not.
Statewide, the number of people hospitalized for COVID-19 doubled over the past three days, from 746 on Friday to 1,432 on Monday, according to state figures.
Hospitalization numbers are much more reliable than positive tests for gauging how severe the coronavirus outbreak is, according to health experts. Testing remains limited and access is uneven, according to county health officials.
OC emergency officials have been estimating the number of COVID cases likely to hit OC hospitals in the coming weeks, but so far have declined to release that information.
Asked by Voice of OC what the peak projected case load is in Orange County, Souleles said at the news conference, “We are working on those projections at this time. That’s part of our ongoing planning process through our emergency operations center, to help us inform that planning moving forward. We hopefully can speak to that [in] a little more detail as the days unfold.”
As of Monday, projections from the University of Washington showed COVID hospitalizations in California multiplying every few days before peaking in late April, and then falling to zero by the end of June. The projection assumes social distancing – considered the most effective tool in fighting the virus – remains in place the entire time, including after hospitalizations drop to zero.
To help prepare for the expected growth in cases, state officials have been preparing to set up overflow hospitals at the Orange County Fairgrounds and Fairview Developmental Center. The plan is to use those new beds for patients who don’t have COVID symptoms, so beds at existing hospitals are freed up to treat patients with severe COVID symptoms whose lives are at risk.
OC officials have repeatedly declined to say how many hospital beds, masks and ventilators are needed to meet the projected demand on hospitals and first responders in the coming weeks. An update Monday from the county, which officials did not publicize, said hospitals were still “depleted” of surgical masks, goggles, gloves, thermometers, wipes, cleaners and test kits.
OC hospitals continue to face a major shortage of ventilators for the projected demand. Ventilators are life-saving equipment used to help patients breathe when they’re severely affected by respiratory diseases like COVID-19.
On Monday, Orange County Health Care Agency officials would still not disclose the number of ventilators being sought by local hospitals. That was a week after the county itself said in an earlier update that hospitals were “depleted” of that critical resource.
County surveys of hospital beds, which officials have declined to release publicly, showed a total capacity across OC of about 4,900 hospital beds, about 670 intensive care unit (ICU) beds, and about 3,400 medical surge beds.
When asked for numbers of beds and equipment that’s projected to be needed, county emergency officials have been emphasizing they’re preparing to meet the challenge, while declining to give specific numbers of what’s needed and being pursued.
“At the present time, we are adequately supplied with beds. As we look forward to the next couple of weeks, we will be ramping up significantly to make sure that surge capacity is available in our communities,” Souleles said at Monday’s news conference when asked what the needs are for hospital beds.
County health care agency officials say they’ve distributed over 1.1 million pieces of protective equipment, but so far have declined to say how much additional equipment is needed. It remained unclear Monday how much of the county’s request for 1 million-plus N95 masks has been distributed.
OC Health Care Agency executives are, in general, acknowledging the large scale of the need for personal protective equipment.
“We are still far from meeting the total need,” said Dr. Nichole Quick, the county health officer, at Monday’s news conference.
“There is a nationwide shortage of personal protective equipment everywhere in this country,” Souleles said at the news conference. “We in California are doing our best, with leadership from the state, and with all of our partners, to try and secure as much [protective equipment] as possible to meet the needs here in Orange County.”
At Monday’s news conference, Sheriff Don Barnes said he had authorized the release of 130 inmates from Orange County jails over the weekend to free up space for quarantines and isolation of inmates who tested positive for COVID, were showing symptoms, or were exposed to people who tested positive.
The 130 inmates who were released either had 10 days or less remaining before they would have normally been released, or were among those most at risk from dying from COVID: age 65 or older or with underlying health conditions. The releases were done in accordance with a court order authorizing the release of inmates, Barnes said.
The move came after concerns from deputy sheriffs about potentially being exposed to coronavirus inside the jails. Their union last week sent a letter asking Barnes to consider releasing non-violent inmates who have 30 days or less remaining on their sentence.
So far, Barnes said, nine people in the jail have had symptoms of COVID-19, including five inmates who tested positive. As of Monday, 150 inmates in OC jails were quarantined and under observation, the sheriff added, saying those inmates may have been exposed but were not showing symptoms.
The sheriff said officials have not seen an uptick in domestic violence cases or disturbance calls to law enforcement during the pandemic. Officials have seen reductions in property crimes and traffic collisions, he added.
There continued to be confusion Monday about how much money is heading to Orange County local governments as part of the $2 trillion federal stimulus package finalized Friday. The package includes $150 billion for state and local governments, which is divided proportionately by population. Orange County is about 1 percent of the national population.
OC officials have seen the money as helpful with upcoming costs like medical equipment and homeless shelters. The total amount, if OC gets its proportional share, would be about $1.5 billion, though it remained to be seen how the money would be split between the state and local governments like the county, cities, and school districts.
A special meeting of the county supervisors is scheduled for Tuesday at 9:30 a.m., with an update on efforts to combat the new coronavirus. The meeting is scheduled to be live streamed online through a link that would appear on this web page just before the meeting starts.
There continued to be technical problems Monday with the county’s news conferences. The live video stream on Facebook had audio, but the phone line county officials set up for reporters to ask questions did not have audio of the first part of the news conference when officials gave their update.
Monday’s full news conference video, including audio, is available here.
Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.