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Dramatic rise in COVID hospitalizations brings 'pandemic of the unvaccinated' to Kern County

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In this April file photo, Shafter student Taylor Du Puy received the Pfizer vaccine from a Kern Medical team member.

Kern County hospitals have experienced a dramatic increase in COVID-19 patients over the last month, leading some health officials to worry a third surge may soon overwhelm local resources.

As of Thursday, the county recorded 121 hospitalized COVID-19 patients, a significant jump from 25 a month before. Over the last week, hospitals have added about four new COVID-19 patients per day, which matches the rate of increase in November when the number of hospitalizations equaled what they are now.

More younger, and healthier, individuals are showing up in emergency rooms, a change from previous coronavirus waves where people with comorbidities were the ones who were most commonly treated. The new group is mostly unvaccinated, and likely falling victim to the more transmissible variants now widely spread across the country.

The vaccine and variants make it hard to predict how the pandemic will evolve.

“I have mixed opinions from various sources as to what they think will happen,” Dr. Glenn Goldis, chief medical officer at Kern Medical, said of the latest uptick. “Some of these individuals feel that this is a younger group, who is basically healthy, and should be over quickly. There are others that feel that there are so many individuals out there who are at risk, and the numbers will go higher. It’s difficult to know how high we will peak and when we will peak.”

Health experts believe the next two weeks will be critical to heading off a potential third wave. They are urging residents to get vaccinated in an effort to slow down the spread of the disease.

Faced with a rising case rate for the first time since June, local residents may be listening. Over the last three weeks, the Kern County Public Health Services Department reports vaccine administration has increased 27 percent. The Kern County Latino COVID-19 Task Force, which hosts pop-up clinics in hard-to-reach areas, has distributed twice the usual number of vaccines over the same period.

At one event in Delano, demand for the vaccine was so high the task force ran out of doses to distribute. Dozens of people were turned away for lack of supply.

“Some of the myths are going away, which is a good thing,” said task force co-founder Jay Tamsi. “I also believe that as we educate folks again, on the variants, and we educate folks on the importance of the vaccine, people are wanting to get vaccinated now. It’s been over a year and a half. It’s time for them to get vaccinated.”

The consequences of a third wave are dire. The two previous surges have left hospital workers exhausted and facilities short-staffed. Now, they face the prospect of caring for people who could have prevented severe illness by receiving the vaccine.

Unfortunately for them, the recent rise in cases seems eerily similar to what has come before.

“It’s like deja vu,” said Terri Church, chief nursing officer at Bakersfield Memorial Hospital.

First, nursing staff saw more COVID-positive patients arriving in the hospital’s emergency room. Then, more asymptomatic individuals receiving routine tests began returning positive results. Now, hospital beds are beginning to fill up and administrators have reopened an intensive care unit that hasn’t been needed since the winter surge.

The hospital is preparing for the worst-case scenario while dealing with a staffing shortage brought on by the pandemic’s high workload.

“I can’t even describe what that feels like. It’s like, we live in the United States. We have the best medicine delivery system out there. It’s not perfect, but very good. We know what we need to do,” Church said. “It’s such a simple answer, but for some, just getting vaccinated, they’re just not going to do it.”

But the tide may still turn, and Kern County could still avoid the worst impacts of a third wave. Officials believe the vaccination message may be starting to reach those who were previously reluctant.

In an effort to stop the spread of the virus in the state's most sensitive areas, California officials have mandated health care and long-term care workers be vaccinated by Sept. 30. Other employers have issued similar requirements.

While Kern County officials have not mandated proof of vaccination or vaccine requirements for participation in certain activities, most hope residents will be swayed through education.

“Hopefully, everywhere you turn, whether it’s social media or television, people are hearing that the majority of the hospitalizations are unvaccinated (patients), and I think that’s the biggest message that we can send right now,” said Kaiser Permanente Chief Administrative Officer Tamara Riley. “Our hospitals have capacity. We have plenty of ventilators. We have plenty of the masks, and the gowns and the supplies and the things that we found ourselves struggling to get when COVID first hit last spring, but if we don’t get more of our overall community vaccinated, we will continue to see the numbers go up.”

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