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COVID-19 hospitalizations exceed peak of first wave; officials expect cases to rise

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In this file photo, Memorial Hospital respiratory therapist Mary Guerrero cares for a patient in the medical center's COVID-19 intensive care unit. Nurses and respiratory therapists write medical measurements on the glass walls on the ICU rooms.

The third wave of coronavirus infections reached a grim milestone in Kern County on Friday: For the first time, the number of people hospitalized in the county was greater than at any point during the first COVID-19 surge last summer.

Although local hospitalizations have not yet returned to their highest point during the pandemic — that distinction belongs to the worst days of the winter surge — the latest peak indicates the coronavirus remains as dangerous as ever to vast swaths of Kern.

Local health officials expect hospitalizations will continue to increase throughout most of September despite widespread availability of the vaccine.

“We are all very concerned about the growth and the trajectory of the increase in cases that are being hospitalized,” Bakersfield Memorial President and CEO Ken Keller said. “Most, if not all, of the hospitals are working under very short staff as a result of departures, exits of one form or another. So the staffing, the resources that need to be there for these patients, continues to get tight for all of us. And all of us are very tired.”

According to data tracked by the California Department of Public Health, there were 337 people being treated for COVID-19 in Kern County on Friday, with 57 in an intensive care unit. The highest level of hospitalizations during the first coronavirus surge occurred on Aug. 2, 2020, with 333 inpatients testing positive for the disease.

The Kern County Public Health Services Department confirmed the third wave of COVID-19 infections had exceeded the first, and noted the vast majority of those impacted were unvaccinated.

In Kern County, just 22 hospitalizations since Jan. 21 have involved someone who was vaccinated. That’s just 0.006 percent of the total. Still, as of this week, only about 46 percent of the county’s eligible population had been fully vaccinated, compared with 67 percent of the eligible state population.

“We all have a role to play in protecting ourselves, our families and our community,” county health department spokeswoman Michelle Corson wrote in an email to The Californian. “The COVID-19 vaccine remains our greatest tool in fighting this disease and preventing severe illness, hospitalization and death.”

She also warned a significant increase in 911 calls was taxing the entire system.

“We urge our residents to use the emergency system responsibly and call 911 only in a true emergency,” she wrote.

Although hospitals are struggling with surging numbers of COVID patients, they report having learned valuable lessons from the first two waves.

"We have battle-tested caregivers that know what to do because they’ve gone through this twice already," Keller said. "We have better resources in terms of ventilators and other equipment, and our plans have been refined and fine-tuned through two other waves, so that from a planning standpoint, we also are better off than where we were last summer."

A statistical model used by state health experts to predict the pandemic's trajectory forecasts a continued rise in local hospitalizations for the next several weeks. Under an "optimistic" scenario portrayed in the model, hospitalizations will peak in mid-September, while in the "pessimistic" scenario, cases will peak in mid-October at levels matching the worst ever seen in Kern County.

So far, the third COVID-19 wave has followed the pessimistic scenario of the model.

The overall number of cases has continued to rise along with hospitalizations. On Friday, KCPH reported 609 new COVID-19 cases, along with four new deaths. That raises the total number of cases in the county since the start of the pandemic to 126,869, with 1,482 deaths.

Broken down by age, 17,119 people less than 17 years old have contracted coronavirus, along with 76,213 people aged 18 to 49, 22,259 people aged 50 to 64 and 11,203 people 65 and older.

The public can find more data on the county's COVID-19 dashboard at https://kernpublichealth.com/covid-19_dashboard/.

The health department is reminding residents they can find testing locations by going to kernpublichealth.com, clicking on the COVID-19 button and looking for “find a testing site near you."

The public can go to https://kernpublichealth.com/coronavirus-vaccine/ for current vaccination information. Kern County Public Health Services further reminds residents that everyone age 12 or older is eligible for the vaccine.

You can reach Sam Morgen at 661-395-7415. Follow him on Twitter: @smorgenTBC.