Soaring coronavirus hospitalizations and case rates are leading to the opening of the Fairview Developmental Center in Costa Mesa to help ease the strain Orange County hospitals are facing.
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The county is quickly approaching 1,000 people hospitalized as the case increases and trends keep breaking OC records.
As of Wednesday, 974 OC residents were in hospitals, including 239 people in intensive care units, according to state data.
Dr. Anita Wang was recently hired to help staff the Fairview Developmental Center, which has turned into a field hospital for stabilized virus patients in an effort to keep hospital beds open.
“After Thanksgiving, the numbers have gone up and my phone has been ringing off the hook to go and work at these places,” Wang said in a Tuesday phone interview.
Wang, who’s treated patients in emergency rooms and intensive care units for 35 years, said she starts at Fairview next week to help stabilize patients if their conditions worsen.
Headhunters are also searching around the state for recently retired doctors and nurses who can help the already burned out hospital workers.
“These are individuals that recently retired, their health care licenses for whatever reason have expired. People with particular expertise across the spectrum in this state,” said Gov. Gavin Newsom at a Monday news conference.
The group, known as the Health Corps, goes to the hardest hit hospitals in the state to help staff beds.
Newsom also said officials have readied places like Fairview, which can be up and running in a matter of a few days.
The virus presents a significant public health challenge as for many people who are infected, there’s no symptoms. But for others, the virus threatens their health in myriad ways.
Dr. Todd Newton, an emergency care physician and area director and chief of staff for Kaiser Permanente Orange County, said he’s never seen anything like the pandemic.
“It’s absolutely different. We have never seen anything close to it and anybody who says they have, I don’t believe them,” Newton said in a Wednesday phone interview. “I have been doing this for 20 years — I’ve been through H1N1 (Swine Flu in 2009) and really bad flu seasons … it wasn’t even close to what we’re experiencing now.”
He said the Kaiser system should be able to handle the spike in cases and hospitalizations and likely won’t need assistance from the state.
Like other doctors interviewed by Voice of OC over the past few weeks as hospitalizations skyrocketed, Newton and Wang said they’ve seen lingering aftereffects from the virus.
“It’s devastating. That’s the problem with this. This virus is a whole body system, it attacks everything and it’s a clotting disease … it gets into the blood vessels,” Wang said. “Six months later, a patient had a victory because they were able to get up out of bed and back into bed without assistance.”
Newton said, who oversees roughly 1,200 doctors, said they’re still discovering new aftereffects from the virus every day.
“There’s been some reports of cognitive decline in people, having trouble remembering or thinking clearly. Certainly you’d expect to see some lung effects,” Newton said. “Blood clots are a feature of this disease process and you can certainly see that. It affects really every organ … it’s unique in this case that some of the effects are more severe than other viruses.”
Local epidemiologists and public health experts warn the situation will continue worsening.
“Even if right now the measures are in place are adhered to strictly and people are not gathering, masking 100%, staying outdoors when they get together with people — even if we do those best practices, I don’t think we’re going to see a decline coming for at least another few weeks,” UC Irvine epidemiologist Sanghyuk Shin said.
He said the virus is spreading at an exponential rate in Orange County because the reproductive rate has reached two before Thanksgiving.
“So one person who’s becoming ill with COVID-19, then two additional people will get sick,” Shin said. “That’s pretty alarming.”
Doctors, public health experts and epidemiologists all fear a potential Thanksgiving spike in cases and hospitalizations.
Shin is convinced it will hit.
“It’s definitely coming. There’s no way around it.”
The county Health Care Agency reported 2,613 new cases on Wednesday — the highest number of daily new cases ever reported, so far.
That bumped the average daily cases up to nearly 1,800 a day for the past week.
State public health officials estimate 12 to 13% of new cases end up in the hospitals.
Since the pandemic began in March, the virus has killed 1,633 county residents out of 93,126 confirmed cases.
Shin said UCI researchers found roughly 5% of OC residents could have the virus right now.
“So the best estimate right now is from Dr. Vladimir Minin (a biostatician) and his modeling suggests that it’s possible about 5% of Orange County residents today may be infected and infectious at this time. So this again, an exponential increase from a few days ago,” Shin said. “He estimates about 150,000 people in Orange County right now have COVID.”
The virus has already killed nearly three times as many people in Orange County as the flu does on an average yearly basis.
For context, Orange County has averaged around 20,000 deaths a year since 2016, including 543 annual flu deaths, according to state health data.
According to those state death statistics, cancer kills over 4,600 people, heart disease kills over 2,800, more than 1,400 die from Alzheimer’s disease and strokes kill over 1,300 people.
The county is on track to surpass its average yearly deaths with over 19,000 people dead as of October, the latest available state health data.
Newton said the exploding hospitalizations could force hospitals to cut back on some non vital surgeries that aren’t outpatient procedures, meaning people go home the same day.
“I believe most systems are going to have to do some cutting back. For instance we’re still going to do things that need to be done now, like cancer surgeries,” Newton said. “Surgeries that can wait — I think every system is going to have to look at whether or not they wait on those.”
Here’s the latest on the virus numbers across Orange County from county data:
Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC staff reporter. You can reach him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio