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Bakersfield hospitals mount intense effort to care for influx of patients

The situation in local hospitals continues to intensify as a spike in COVID-19 admissions in recent days has pushed some facilities past their worst points this summer, hospital administrators said Wednesday.

At the two Mercy hospitals in Bakersfield, space for critical care patients has run out. There were 32 ICU patients in the downtown and southwest hospitals at one point Wednesday morning but only 28 beds, according to Bruce Peters, CEO of the two hospitals. Almost half the ICU patients were on ventilators, he said.

Bakersfield Memorial Hospital is now averaging 70 patients a day in its ICU, up from 48 patients a day last week, said its CEO Ken Keller.

While that number of patients is similar to or slightly higher than during the summer surge, the pace at which hospital admissions has increased is much higher this time, he said.

“We’ve built up to this population extremely quickly in the last several days,” Keller said.

State data shows that 71 new patients were hospitalized in Kern County for coronavirus since Friday, bringing the total COVID-19 hospitalizations to about 300. That doesn’t include patients who were hospitalized for all other reasons.

Patients are also arriving sicker than they were over the summer and more are being admitted directly into the ICU this time rather than a regular hospital floor, said Dignity Health’s Chief Nursing Officer Terri Church, who oversees nursing staff at the Mercy and Memorial hospitals.

“Between the volume and the acuity, it is definitely stressing out our critical care services and, of course, our staff who take care of those patients,” Church said.

The hospitals need more nurses but they are increasingly hard to come by. Church said nationwide there are 30,000 requests for traveling nurses.

So existing nursing staff is working overtime to fill in the gaps.

“Unfortunately we are calling people every day on their day off,” Church said. “Sometimes we call them twice a day because they might change their mind.”

About 100 traveling nurses are already working at Bakersfield Memorial, hired in preparation for the current surge. But it seems clear that won’t be enough.

Kern Medical’s ICU was also out of beds on Wednesday. Four patients were being held in the emergency department, according to CEO Russell Judd.

Judd spoke assuredly of the hospital’s ability to adapt to higher patient volumes but acknowledged it takes a toll on staff, he said.

“We are people caring for people. Hospital beds don’t provide care, people provide care,” he said. “Our staff give all they can to care for these patients.”

Peters, who oversees the Mercy hospitals, said he’s asked why staff who perform elective surgeries can’t be moved around to help out the impacted ICUs. But nurses who work in outpatient surgery aren’t necessarily able to do what an ICU nurse does, he said.

“They simply are not trained and it’s not safe ...,” he said.

If cases continue to rise, Church said, nurses in supervising or managing roles will be pulled into patient care.

“That’s usually enough to get us over the hump,” she said.

What’s most concerning is the question of how many more patients will stream into hospitals in the coming weeks as the county posts alarmingly high numbers of new cases day after day. The ongoing surge stems from Thanksgiving gatherings, Church and others said, which means another wave will likely follow Christmas.

But that’s not inevitable, said Dr. Hemmal Kothary, Dignity’s chief medical officer for its Central California division. The severity of the next surge could be greatly reduced if people follow guidelines to avoid gatherings or keep them small and wear masks and social distance the entire time, he said.

“We all as a community, as a country, have that ability to impact this next surge in January,” Kothary said.

Judd of Kern Medical was more straightforward with his message.

“This is very easily solved,” he said. “Change your behavior and we won’t be in these circumstances.”