Local hospitals, eyeing surges in coronavirus cases in other parts of the country, are stretching out their capacity to a total goal of 5,367 beds available countywide, and officials say the medical facilities are more than 60% full.
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As the county awaits its own increase in cases, which experts say is “inevitable,” officials say there are enough beds for now. People hospitalized with coronavirus numbered at 67 out of 606 total cases as of Wednesday, with 31 of those people in intensive care. Ten people have died so far, according to county data.
Both OC Healthcare Director Richard Sanchez, who’s leaving for a CEO job at CalOptima, and Deputy Director David Souleles made reassurances that the county had adequate hospital capacity for now, both in press conferences and county supervisors meetings over the last couple of days.
Souleles at a Tuesday press conference said hospitals are in the process of ramping up capacity by around 10%, bringing the number of total beds to 5,367.
Medical experts like Paul Yost, who’s on the CalOptima board, said in the event of a surge or increase in cases similar to reports out of states like New York and Michigan, “I don’t think that’s likely to be enough, but I don’t know. I don’t have a crystal ball.”
Yost said “we’re not overrun at this point the way some places are” like New York, which he said is “completely and totally inundated,” but “It’s hard to know what is really going to happen.”
Souleles at a Tuesday press conference said the hospitals are between 65% to 67% full, while a spokesperson at the county emergency operations center — who didn’t identify themself — gave a conflicting number of hospitals being at 63% capacity.
A spokesperson at the center’s media line wouldn’t comment on other questions of whether county officials believed a surge was indeed coming, instead referring to the Tuesday press conference where Souleles gave those figures on hospital capacity and available beds.
County hospitals have a total of 809 ventilators — which are considered key for life support with COVID-19 patients experiencing respiratory issues or failure — and officials have asked for 500 more from the state. Meanwhile testing still isn’t widely available for people, Souleles said at the press conference, and there’s no data being tracked on how many people are recovering.
He pointed to figures reported by the World Health Organization — that approximately 80% of those who have the virus displayed mild to moderate illness.
Souleles at a March 30 news conference said the county would work on getting hospitalization data up on the government website, though that information hasn’t come online yet.
“I believe an increase in cases is inevitable,” Yost added in a later text. A surge, on the other hand, “depends on us, depends on social measures and speed of transmission.”
Two estimates — one from the county and another from University of Washington researchers — project a peak in hospitalizations by late April or early May for the county and state.
The University of Washington’s projection, which is statewide, estimates hospitalizations to reach zero by the end of June, but it assumes social distancing remains in place the entire time and after hospitalizations drop to zero.
“In particular for Orange County, the surge that we are anticipating is probably going to be in two or three weeks, probably into early May as well,” Sanchez said at a special meeting Tuesday of the county Board of Supervisors.
“We do have to be ready in our surge capacity,” he added.
This is “an easily transmissible new disease for which no one has immunity has entered the population and it’s more dangerous than the flu,” Yost said. “Definitely an increase is coming.”
The Governor’s Office and state officials also announced today that the Fairview Developmental Center in Costa Mesa will serve as a patient overflow site, part of a wider effort by the state to increase hospital capacity by more than 50,000 beds come the end of May.
The facility will be staffed by state medical personnel, with admissions determined by local medical providers and an emphasis on patients who require monitoring and low to medium levels of care, according to the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, with the purpose of freeing up beds in the county’s hospitals to serve patients with more severe diagnoses.
The site is expected to come online in April and open up 1,100 new hospital beds for patients, according to a statement from 74th State Assemblywoman Cottie Petrie-Norris .
Officials have also been eyeing the OC Fairgrounds, also in Costa Mesa, as another overflow patient site.
The state is also sending out 78 trailers to a few cities in the county for homeless people who need to be quarantined and isolated, though that number comprises a small segment of the state’s request for the county to establish 2,300 beds for homeless.
The county has also tried to respond to supply issues, which rhyme with reports from around the country of hospitals running low on key protective gear and garments like n95 respirator masks and personal protective equipment.
Throughout this month the county issued at least 878,705 n95 respirator masks and other equipment like face shields, gloves, and gowns. The county also started accepting donations. Souleles gave those figures at the Tuesday press conference.
In total, around 1.1 million medical supplies have been distributed to providers around the county, he said.
Healthcare providers, nurses, and doctors from medical facilities all over the county — from UC Irvine to the OC Jails — have groaned under the demands for crucial medical supplies while current stockpiles are tapped.
Staff Writer Nick Gerda contributed reporting.
Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC reporting fellow. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @photherecord.