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As spiking coronavirus cases and hospitalizations stretch local hospitals to their limits, Orange County’s public health officer issued an emotional appeal for the public to wear masks and avoid gathering with people who live in other households.

“Our hospitals are now bombarded,” said Dr. Clayton Chau, who serves as county health officer and director of the Orange County Health Care Agency, in a public update to county supervisors Tuesday.

“The emergency rooms have no capacity to triage people as quick as they can. We have people who are waiting to be seen when they get to the emergency room,” he added, noting his staff are deploying field hospital beds to local hospitals that requested them.

“Every day we break the record of the number of people who have [been] infected. So I’m pleading with the community: Please. Please. Do not gather. And make sure you follow the public health guidance.”

After months of public comments at the board meetings where some residents registered their opposition to masks, the county’s chief health official pushed back emphatically.

“The wearing [of] masks, the staying physically separate from people – that is the only thing that still works to stop the spread of the virus. Let’s make that very very clear. There’s no argument on the other side of it,” Chau said.

“We are now surpassing 16 million people infected, and over 300,000 people who died from this virus [in this country]. Okay? That is a fact. That number is not fake,” he added, raising his voice.

“And the reason why we have an increase in cases is because people have been gathering and not following public health guidance. Period. Let’s make that very clear. There’s no argument on that.”

The number of Covid patients in Orange County hospitals and intensive care are now at a record-high, with nearly 1,400 people hospitalized of Tuesday, including 319 people in intensive care. And those numbers are now increasing at their fastest rate of the pandemic, pointing to an exponential growth in cases.

“It is really challenging on the capacity front. Our ICUs are very close to full,” said Jeremy Zoch, chief executive of Providence St. Joseph Hospital in Orange, one of the largest hospitals in OC, at a news conference Wednesday.

“We need your help staying home, staying safe, and in helping us reduce the spread so that we can be able to keep up and care for the community here,” he added.

As Voice of OC has been reporting for weeks, local doctors disease experts have been warning a massive wave of coronavirus hospitalizations after infections started to jump in late October.

Supervisor Andrew Do said he saw with his own eyes how impacted hospitals are.

“Unfortunately this past weekend I had to be in ICU for personal reasons. And I can tell you from personal observation, every single bed was taken,” Do said Tuesday, following his father’s sudden death over the weekend.

“What we’re seeing is not a surge but more like a tsunami,” said Supervisor Doug Chaffee. He quoted a nurse at St. Jude hospital in Fullerton saying their intensive care units were at 105% capacity.

Supervisor Lisa Bartlett warned that when hospitals completely run out of capacity, the death rates go up because virus patients can’t get full access to emergency care.

“You know when people talk about, ‘Well our death rate is relatively low.’ But you take a look at what happened in countries like Italy and other parts of the world, where their death rates started to go up exponentially when they ran out of space in their hospitals and their ERs,’ ” Bartlett said.

“They ran out of capacity and their health care system got overwhelmed. We don’t want to get to the point. So whatever we need to continue to do to message out there about the gatherings, I think we really need to help focus on that, and drive home that message to the public. Because we’ve got to slow the spread of Covid-19 within our county.”

County health officials last week urged all hospitals in the county to activate surge plans and halt non-emergency surgeries to free up space for the surge in patients.

“The health care system in Orange County is now in crisis resulting from an overwhelming increase in the number of COVID infected patients,” read the directive from Dr. Carl Schultz, the county’s medical director for Emergency Medical Services.

“If all the hospitals become overwhelmed, it will not be possible to transport patients to hospitals and have them receive rapid and appropriate care” Schultz added last week in a written response to Voice of OC’s questions. “Patients will be stuck on the ambulance unable to enter the [emergency department] as it is full and overflowing.”

Last week, for the first time in the pandemic, all five supervisors started wearing masks at their public meeting – a new practice they kept up this week.

“I have never been so afraid of Christmas and New Year in my life, like I [am] now,” Chau said.

“Because I don’t want – I can’t imagine what it would be like after the holiday if people are not listening, and people are not complying, and people are in defiance and get together,” he added with a sigh.

In response to Chau’s pleas, Supervisor Michelle Steel called him emotional while Supervisor Don Wagner said he’s doing a “yeoman’s effort.”

“I apologize, I didn’t mean to raise my voice,” Chau said.

“You got really emotional today,” Steel responded, with a laugh. “But you know, I understand that – that we are all very much concerned about this virus.”

“I know that you are working around the clock, and it has been a yeoman’s effort,” Wagner told Chau.

“I want to thank you for it. And I will also say for the public, I know you hear the voices of those who come here [to speak]. I know you hear the voices of the patients. And I know you hear the voices of the medical professionals…I thank you for your continued efforts.”

Wagner later said that while he supports Sheriff Don Barnes in not enforcing mask mandates, he’s also for the sheriff backing up businesses that do require masks.

“If you’re not going to wear a mask in a business that requires one, go down the street and find somebody else. Or better, put on the darned mask,” Wagner said.

“If you are a business owner and you want your customers to wear masks so they feel safe, this supervisor – and I certainly expect this Sheriff’s Department and our police departments out there to fully protect your right to control your premises and keep your customers safe.”

The first set of field hospitals are currently now deployed to local hospitals, officials said, with 125 beds total going to St. Jude, UCI Medical Center, and St. Joseph.

Hospital staff are getting stretched thin as they try keep pace with the surge of Covid patients flowing into emergency rooms, officials said.

“Be strong and do [the holidays] different this year. You can help us stay safe…We have nurses, caregivers, housekeepers, signing up taking extra shifts, working so many extra hours,” said Zoch, the chief executive at St. Joseph.

“It’s not good to have that person working 6, 7, 8 days in a row. And we don’t want to do that. And so if you’re healthy and safe and you’re not in a hospital, we can help balance out the resources here to care for those that truly need it.”

“We’ve had our physicians, we’ve had caregivers, that say ‘I was only with one other family,’ ‘I was only with one other group.’ And then they come in, and they eat together,” and have gotten Covid, Zoch said.

“We all, I think in this community, have those stories. And then all the guilt, all the anxiousness that goes along with it. So I would just really encourage you, let’s do it different. Let’s do it right this year for where we’re at this time.”

Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at ngerda@voiceofoc.org.

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