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Dignity Health administrators say majority of staff should be vaccinated against COVID by early January

Administrators from Dignity Health provided an update on efforts to vaccinate its staff against the COVID-19 virus, roll out the vaccine to the community and what its surge plans look like in the weeks ahead.

Bakersfield Memorial CEO Ken Keller and Dr. Hemmal Kothary, who oversees both Mercy hospitals in Bakersfield, provided details about what is happening at Dignity Health at a Wednesday morning roundtable.


As of Tuesday, 900 employees at Memorial Hospital were vaccinated and about the same number were vaccinated at both Mercy Hospital locations, Keller said. That includes nurses, respiratory techs, physicians and other caregivers and staff who deal directly with COVID-positive patients. 

"So far everything is going well," Kothary said. "We have our prioritization list and we're going through that."

Dignity Health expects to go through its list no later than the second week of January, when it will begin to open up vaccinations to the community, Kothary said.

Staff have been receiving the Pfizer vaccine so far, but the first shipments of the Moderna vaccine were expected at the hospitals by Thursday. 

No staff members have experienced serious side effects that required treatment. No one at Memorial Hospital experienced anything worse than soreness at the injection site or in the shoulder, Keller said. One staff member at Mercy did experience numbness in her face that "resolved within minutes," Kothary said. 

Some administrators were publicly vaccinated on the first day in an effort to demonstrate the safety and importance of the vaccine, Keller said. There has been some skepticism among employees about the vaccine's safety. He said when they've provided that additional information to those with concerns, they have ultimately opted for the vaccine.

"We will get the overwhelming majority of our employees and caregivers vaccinated," Keller said.

Kothary encourages the community to get it when they're able to.

"This vaccine is safe, please get it," Kothary said. "We're doing the same at our hospital level as well."


Hospitalization numbers are beginning to level off for Dignity Health, Keller said. Bakersfield Memorial currently has 64 patients who are COVID-positive — 15 of those in intensive care units. On Tuesday, its Mercy locations had 82 patients with COVID but they ticked down to the 70's on Wednesday, Kothary said.

Hospitalization numbers reflect parties, travel and gatherings that happened over Thanksgiving. But the hospital is anticipating another surge over the coming weeks with the Christmas holiday on the horizon. He said hospitals' concern is that the slope of growth for COVID-positive patients was much steeper during this surge than it was in late July or early August.

Keller asked residents to continue to wash their hands, wear masks and social distance to help keep demand on hospitals low. He also shared the new phrase health officials have been pushing as Christmas, Kwanzaa and New Year's Eve approach: "Don't share your air." 


Keller said the Memorial Hospital's surge plans are in full-swing, but they have plans to "flex up" as necessary. Hospitals are preparing to add additional capacity whether for regular hospital beds or intensive care unit patients, he said.

The number of available ICU beds in state data doesn't fully reflect the hospital's capacity, Keller said. Post-anesthesia units, other recovery areas and even parts of the emergency department can be converted into space for patients who need intensive care. Staffing, not beds, is the main limiting factor for hospitals, he said.

"We have additional capacity available to use as part of our surge plans. We will pull the trigger to use those at the appropriate time," Keller said. "The honest, major question for us continues to be the staffing support — those caregivers that we would need — in those additional areas."

The hospital has a contract to bring on additional travel nurses in the first week of January to increase clinical staff. The hospital is also taking a look at upcoming elective procedures and whether some that might be considered less urgent may be postponed to increase bed capacity.


Kothary said they have monitored what is happening with a new strain of COVID-19 from the United Kingdom that may be in the United States. Dignity Health has a testing unit called Cepheid that can detect the new strain, and other current precautions should "keep the virus at bay." He said that both the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines have been shown to be effective against this new strain.