Skyrocketing coronavirus cases and hospitalizations forced state public health officials to order an additional 5,000 body bags and 60 refrigerated trucks to help store dead bodies as morgues could get overrun.
Editor’s Note: As Orange County’s only nonprofit & nonpartisan newsroom, Voice of OC brings you the best, most comprehensive local Coronavirus news absolutely free. No ads, no paywalls. We need your help. Please, make a tax-deductible donation today to support your local news.
“This is a deadly pandemic, and we’re in the middle of it right now,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said at a Tuesday news conference when he announced the body bags and refrigerated trucks. He also said the state is in “the most acute peak.”
Newsom said the average daily deaths across the state continue to dramatically increase.
“Here’s the numbers: 163 people we’ve lost, on average, every single day … for the last seven days. Compare the seven-day average to a month ago — 41.”
The worsening coronavirus trends in OC pushed the Children’s Hospital of Orange County to begin taking adult patients up to 29 years old to help ease the burden on other hospitals.
“To help reduce the strain on adult hospitals as COVID-19 cases continue to rise in Orange County, CHOC has begun treating young adult patients – individuals 29 years and younger – who are transferred to our main hospital in Orange with conditions for which we have the ability to treat,” CHOC spokeswoman Denise Almazan said in a Tuesday email.
Almazan said the move won’t impact children’s health care.
“This decision does not impact our ability to provide safe and high-quality pediatric care. CHOC already cares for some adult patients who had a number of pediatric conditions that have extended into their adulthood,” she wrote.
OC, along with Southern California, is seeing skyrocketing hospitalizations, which pushed state officials to ready the Fairview Developmental Center in Costa Mesa for stabilized virus patients.
The center is expected to open by Thursday, according to state officials at Newsom’s Tuesday news conference.
Meanwhile, OC continues to break pandemic records daily.
As of Tuesday, 1,371 county residents were hospitalized, including 296 people in intensive care units — the highest number, so far.
That’s an increase of nearly 100 overnight. On Monday 1,287 were hospitalized.
And the county’s been averaging over 2,400 new virus cases a day.
The county Health Care Agency reported 2,173 new cases Tuesday.
State public health officials estimate 12 to 13% of all new cases end up hospitalized two to three weeks down the road.
“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. Because our hospitals are now bombarded,” OC health officer Dr. Clayton Chau said during the county Supervisors virus update Tuesday.
He said people are waiting to get into emergency rooms.
“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,” Chau said.
Tuesday also marked Chau’s most impassioned plea to get people to follow public health guidelines, like masks, physical distancing and avoiding mixing with people outside of immediate households.
“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. We know why we have an increase in cases in this country. We are now surpassing 16 million people infected, and over 300,000 people who died from this virus. Okay?,” Chau said, raising his voice at times.
Other times he choked back tears.
“That is a fact. That number is not fake. 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,” Chau said. “There’s no argument on that.”
Dr. Todd Newton, OC medical director for Kaiser Permanente, said doctors, nurses, specialists and technicians are already stretched thin by the massive hospital surge.
“One of the issues that we are facing is staff are extremely tired. We are fatigued. People are impacted by what they read in the newspapers and political battles going on. It does take a toll on health care workers,” he said in a phone interview last week.
Newton, who specializes in emergency medicine, said the community spread is so prevalent, many hospital workers are getting sick outside of work.
The worsening situation in Southern California and other regions in the state is forcing Newsom and state public health officials to scramble for more hospital staff.
“We also have a request … to the Department of Defense for medical personnel, we’re asking for 10 teams of 20,” Newsom said at Tuesday’s news conference.
State officials are also sending headhunters after retired critical care doctors and ICU nurses in an effort to beef up medical staffing as the second wave hammers hospitals.
“It’s a bad sign that the surge is really deep and we need people. But I don’t see it as a bad sign that we’re having retired physicians from their specialities coming back and taking care of people,” Newton said. “Medicine is a lifelong learning experience … it doesn’t just evaporate because you retire.”
Newsom also said public health officials are going temporarily to lower nurse-to-ICU patient ratios.
“I know how important nurse-to-patient ratios are,” Newsom said, adding its “very short term.”
The California Nurses Association is ringing alarm bells about the ratio change.
“Heavier patient assignments sharply cut the time nurses can provide individualized patient care, properly monitor a patient’s condition, and increase the likelihood of mistakes, as studies have documented for years,” said registered nurse Zenei Cortez, president of the association, in a Tuesday news release.
The association is slated to hold a virtual news conference at 11 a.m. Wednesday about the issue.
Since the pandemic began in March, the virus has killed 1,695 county residents out of 107,937 confirmed cases, according to the county Health Care Agency.
The virus has already killed over 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.
Doctors and public health experts have been warning about the skyrocketing hospitalizations and new daily case increases could hamper care for non-virus conditions, like heart attack patients and strokes.
Although vaccinations for the general population are on the horizon, doctors and experts say it won’t dent the spike happening right now because those doses aren’t expected for months. The first shipments of vaccines are expected to go to health care workers and other critical infrastructure workers.
And the epidemiologists worry about Christmas, which could add another spike on top of a surge, like Thanksgiving did.
“I think we’re going to look back and really regret the tragic impact that it’s (Thanksgiving) had. And frankly, just kind of looking at people public health scientists have been looking at, the early indicators of travel for the Christmas holiday and the early indicators are not looking good,” said UC Irvine epidemiologist Sanghyuk Shin in a Monday phone interview.
Shin said he and other epidemiologists and public health researchers have been tracking travel data.
“People are making reservations for travel, not quite at 2019, but getting close to it. The fact that large numbers of the population are not taking COVID-19 seriously is a huge failure on the part of the leadership, perhaps on the part of the public health community like myself,” Shin said. “It’s a failure on all of us. It’s just really grim.”
Dr. Shruti Gohil, who treats ICU patients at UC Irvine Medical Center in Orange, said specialist doctors and nurses have been doing telehealth in an effort to keep people’s existing conditions — like high blood pressure and diabetes — under control so they don’t have to get treated in the emergency room and ICU down the road, freeing up beds for coronavirus patients.
Gohil said non-virus treatments haven’t been cancelled at the UC Irvine Medical Center.
And they’ve been able to shift around hospital patients to keep beds open for the incoming virus patients, she said.
“We’ve sort of really sharpened our ability to make sure patients who are in for the real acute care needs get treated and then get placed in the appropriate care setting as soon as they possibly can to make room for additional COVID patients as needed,” Gohil said in a Tuesday phone interview.
Gohil, who’s also an infectious disease expert and associate medical director of Epidemiology and Infection Prevention at UCI Medical center, said she expects Christmas to bring even more cases.
“I fully expect to keep rising and we are increasing countywide exponentially,” Gohil said.
She said the cases are increasing by 50%, then 100% and potentially even more as people increasingly become infected and are able to spread the virus.
“Meaning each new week of increased cases brings upon itself two times more increased cases — the bottom line on that is I fully expect we’re going to continue to keep surging as a county, a state, a nation, fully through January, maybe February.”
Chau also expressed concern about the holiday season.
“I have never been so afraid of Christmas and New Year in my life, like I am now,” Chau said. “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.”
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
Reporter Nick Gerda contributed to this story.