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Mercy Southwest, already a busy place, is getting walloped by COVID

Mercy Southwest was already a busy hospital but it's been walloped by COVID-19.

On Wednesday morning, there were 32 patients being held in its 29-bed emergency department waiting for a room in an inpatient unit to open.

The hospital has an eight-bed ICU but had nearly a dozen patients on ventilators, which require ICU-level care.

Even the 18-bed birth center has been impacted by COVID-19. Five mothers and one newborn had the virus that day, and a second baby was suspected of being positive.

Bruce Peters, president and CEO of Mercy Southwest and Downtown, is in meetings constantly with his staff figuring out how to handle the crush of patients at both facilities. In a meeting he just finished, a chief nurse said a patient in the Southwest emergency room had refused to be transferred to an open bed at Mercy Downtown.

It's a problem encountered at the hospital even before the pandemic, Peters said. 

"We have people who will spend their entire inpatient stay in the ER when we have beds downtown," Peters said. "They say, 'No I like it out here, you’re treating me well, my family is out here.'"

That refrain is a testament to the integral role Mercy Southwest — the only acute care hospital west of Highway 99 in Bakersfield — plays in a part of the community that has exploded in size in recent decades. The problem is the size of the hospital hasn't kept pace with the population increase.  

A planned $300 million expansion that was supposed to start this past summer will eventually double bed capacity at Mercy Southwest. COVID-19 postponed construction until later this year, and in doing so, has brought into sharp relief just how badly the addition is needed.

The expansion will add a four-story tower adjacent to the hospital, adding 106 beds and tripling ICU beds, from the current eight beds to 24. The initial price tag was about $250 million but shortages of materials worldwide due to the pandemic have already driven the price up by another $50 million, Peters said. 

In a similar effort to address the lopsided concentration of hospitals in Bakersfield's downtown and east side, Adventist Health in 2018 announced plans to build a new hospital that would serve the northwest part of town at a site near Coffee and Brimhall roads. Original plans called for construction to start this year and for the facility to open in 2024. An Adventist Health spokeswoman said Wednesday there was no update on the project at this time.

For Beverly Camp, who along with her husband, Jim, is leading the capital campaign to fund the Mercy Southwest expansion, the importance of the local hospital can't be understated. 

"When one of your loved ones are in the hospital, and God forbid, in a truly imperiled state, you want to be as close to them as possible," Beverly Camp said. "... the thought of getting in the car and it taking you 30 minutes to get to them when you get that phone call saying come immediately is just terrifying. Think if you had a child in the hospital."

Prior to the pandemic, the Camps would give hospital tours to potential donors. One area that always left an impression on visitors was the neonatal intensive care unit, the couple said, where preemies and newborns with medical conditions are treated. The room is cramped and mothers often have just a curtain and a couple of feet separating them from each other, Beverly Camp said.

"It's just heartbreaking and we’re going to change that. No one who is struggling to watch their child take their next breath should be in a position like that without privacy," she said.

Mercy Southwest started out in 1992 as a birthing center in conjunction with the nearby San Dimas Medical Group, a large OBGYN practice, Peters said. In 2005 and 2006, the facility began to expand, with the addition of an emergency department and intensive care unit, and eventually an orthopedics specialty was added. 

Today, there's a clear sense the 82-bed hospital is the go-to place for residents of northwest and southwest Bakersfield.

"The people on the west side think of (Highway) 99 as a mountain range for health care and they want to access (care) out in the southwest," Peters said. "You’ve seen an explosion of doctors offices and health care out there in the past 10 years so it’s really an area that needs more support of the hospital."

The Mercy hospitals have hit "a historic level" of patients due to COVID-19, Peters said, and Southwest is the most impacted. While Peters said he encourages anyone who needs emergency care to go to their closest ER, he said that people showing up with minor ailments, like a sore back, a sore throat or an earache, would likely get faster service at an urgent care.

"I wish I had gotten this thing going sooner because, boy, it sure would’ve helped," Peters said, lamenting the expansion didn't get underway before the pandemic hit. "But we’ll get there when we get there."