California Covid-19 Update: ICU Bed Availability Statewide Drops To Just 2%

A medical tent set up outside the emergency room at UCI Medical Center

At the end of a week where health officials have related grim scenes from hospitals across California, there comes the announcement that available ICU capacity in the state has fallen to just 2.1%. That’s a staggering statistic in a state of 40 million people amid a pandemic.

California announced some 41,000 more positive test results on Friday. That makes it far and away the U.S. state with the most infections. The daily new infections in the nation’s second and third most populous states combined do not add up to California’s total. Texas’s newest count had it at 14,805 and Florida on Friday was at 13,148. Together, that’s about 28,000 compared to the Golden State’s 41,012.

In fact, California’s daily numbers this week are larger than those of most countries according to Johns Hopkins, including the UK, Russia, Turkey, India and Germany.

The ICU shortage has been top of mind all this week. On Friday, the Chief Medical Officer of one of L.A.’s biggest hospitals said, ““We’re getting crushed.”

Dr. Brad Spellberg of Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center said his facility has been playing musical beds, trying to expand ICU capacity.

“For most of the days of the last week, we’ve had zero ICU beds open in the morning,” said Spellberg, “and we have had to scramble — ‘can we move this patient here,’ ‘can we move that patient there…We’re already expanding care into areas of the hospital we don’t normally provide that type of care in.”

ICU units in Orange County are apparently even worse off, having bottomed out at 0% capacity early in the week.

On Monday, Southern California had just 1.7% of ICU bed capacity left. By Tuesday night, availability had fallen to just 0.5%. By Thursday, the region’s capacity was at 0%. That’s down from 10.1% last Friday.

The state reported a grim 300 deaths, its second-highest daily tally of lives lost to the pandemic. As hard as that number is to take, it’s bound to go much, much higher in light of the current case and ICU numbers.

California’s Covid-19 dashboard reported 53,711 new cases on Wednesday. That is the highest single daily count of virus infections ever recorded by a U.S. state — Texas had a data anomaly on December 11 that resulted in 58,000 cases, but that number was not a real reflection of the state’s new infections over a 24-hour period. Unfortunately, California’s Wednesday total was not an anomaly. On Thursday, the state reported an only slightly less staggering 52,281 new cases. Other states’ highest-ever daily new case counts are not even half the new California tally.

Wednesday’s record new case number will likely translate to about 6,500 hospitalizations in two weeks as those reported infected seek help. That’s 6,500 hospitalizations. Using the ratio that has held since fall, that works out to 1,300 new ICU patients from just one day’s infections. Ditto Thursday’s new case number.

California Governor Gavin Newsom announced on Wednesday that the state had activated mutual aid among the state’s coroners. That means if one area’s coroners are overwhelmed, they can call on those from nearby regions for help. He made an announcement indicating that the state is preparing for skyrocketing deaths.

“We have orders for 63 refrigerated units,” he said. “We just had to order 5,000 additional body bags and distribute them down to San Diego, L.A. County.” Newsom said his intention was not to scare Californians, but the gravity of the announcement was hard to ignore.

L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti said on Thursday that hospital officials were telling him and his staff that if Los Angeles continues on its upward trend of COVID-19 hospitalizations through Christmas, the medical facilities will “go under,” meaning they won’t be able to adequately service coronavirus patients or patients of other ailments.

He also said a “systemwide crisis” may need to be declared and a countywide emergency order could be issued if hospitals remain inundated with patients.

“Some hospitals can convert non-[intensive care unit] spaces into ICU spaces, but other hospitals can’t,” Garcetti said, adding ambulances have to be rerouted at times if a hospital is at capacity. That’s if there is capacity elsewhere. Some ambulances in Southern California have had to wait 5 and 7 hours outside ERs to deliver patients.

An emergency declaration, Garcetti said, could force the county to enact stricter measures on businesses and order other closures to make sure “we don’t have to have those harrowing visions of doctors deciding who gets that last ventilator and who doesn’t.”

Earlier this week, a consortium of powerful unions representing teachers (UTLA), nurses (California Nurses Association), healthcare (National Union of Healthcare Workers), grocery (UFCW 770) and hotel employees called for something similar. Specifically, the unions asked the L.A. County Board of Supervisors to “enact stay at home orders that are strict enough to truly suppress the virus by closing all non-essential businesses and activities in the County, for the first four weeks of January.

Garcetti said on Thursday that if the current trends continue for the next three to five weeks, the county’s health system will “have nothing left.”

City News Service contributed to this report.

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