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Chief Nursing Officer Terri Church at Bakersfield Memorial Hospital in July. 

New daily cases of COVID-19 in Kern County have dipped and so have hospitalizations for those with the virus, but hospitals are still being clobbered by record-high patient levels.

Kern Medical is seeing its highest-ever patient census, holding about 180 patients on Wednesday, which is about 20 patients above the typical number the hospital sees, according to CEO Russell Judd. About 40 of those patients were positive for COVID-19, and having filled all its ICU beds, five ICU-level patients were being treated in another unit of the hospital, Judd said.

Total hospitalizations for COVID-19 in the county's 10 hospitals have dropped from a high of 453 on Jan. 11 to slightly above 400 on Tuesday. New daily cases have also gone down from more than 1,000 per day to a little more than 500 for each of the past two days.

Does that mean the virus has peaked locally? 

Some hospital officials and medical leaders sounded hopeful that may be the case, but others suspect the surge could still climb in the coming weeks. 

"One of the things we've seen in the past week or so is the slope of the curve of the increase of new cases isn't quite as steep as we had anticipated earlier," said Bakersfield Memorial President and CEO Ken Keller. "So this might be — underscoring might be — an early leading indicator that the number of hospitalizations might continue to level off and subside by the end of the month."

Dr. Ronald Reynoso, chief medical officer for Adventist Health Bakersfield and its Tehachapi and Delano hospitals, also sounded a hopeful note. 

"For the last several days we have noticed we have less patients overall and less COVID patients being admitted. From that point of view it appears to be improving," Reynoso said, speaking about Adventist Health's Bakersfield hospital. "We hope we are at the peak or have already passed it but it’s hard to say."

If the situation continues to improve over the next week, Reynoso said, it will be a better sign that indeed the peak may have happened. But it’s still too early to say, he said.

Still, the reprieve in COVID-19 patients has brought breathing room to some hospitals. Both Bakersfield Memorial and Adventist Health Bakersfield are poised in the coming days to open on-campus clinics that would administer infusion therapies to COVID-19 positive patients that are believed to reduce the severity of the illness. Administering the new therapy to more patients, which aims to keep high-risk patients out of the hospital, was harder to do when both hospitals' resources were stretched thin in the past couple of weeks.

Known as monoclonal antibody treatments, the FDA approved emergency use of the drugs for patients who are 65 and over or who have chronic underlying conditions. The two drugs, bamlanivimab and Regeneron, are delivered through intravenous infusion, which requires time and staff, since patients must be monitored during the hour-long infusion and for an hour or so afterward.  

The clinic at Bakersfield Memorial will serve patients referred by local physicians and urgent care centers, Keller said. Kern Medical is already delivering the treatment in its emergency rooms to qualifying patients.

Another boon came in the past week with the arrival of nursing staff sent by the state to help overwhelmed hospitals. 

Bruce Peters, president and CEO of Mercy Downtown and Southwest hospitals, said his facilities received 35 nurses, three nurses aides and two licensed vocational nurses from the California Emergency Medical Services Authority in addition to half a dozen ICU nurses last week through a contract the county entered into with a medical staffing company.

"The good news is some of the cavalry showed up yesterday and today," said Peters, who noted the two Mercy hospitals continue to see patient levels at historic highs.

Adventist Health Bakersfield and Bakersfield Memorial also reported receiving additional staff. 

Ridgecrest Regional Hospital CEO Jim Suver said his facility is also in the thick of a major surge in cases in the desert region it serves. With a local positivity rate as high as 37 percent recently, the hospital has seen an influx in patients. It was operating at about double its capacity recently, with half those patients being COVID-19 positive, Suver said.

Suver doesn't think the situation has reached its apex yet.

"We’re hoping we’ll start seeing a decline and not another increase," Suver said.

Dr. Hemmal Kothary, chief medical officer for the Mercy hospitals and Bakersfield Memorial, said he isn't convinced the worst is over, either.

Since hospitalizations typically rise a couple of weeks after the surge in cases, he said he anticipates more patients coming to the hospitals as a result of New Year's gatherings.

"We’re still getting a lot of admissions to the hospital. We’re seeing a lot of deaths," Kothary said. 

Terri Church, chief nursing officer for Mercy and Memorial hospitals, said the hospitalizations have leveled off, meaning they're neither increasing nor decreasing.

"Right now we’re on the mountaintop and we’re walking along that," she said. 

While it's unclear which direction new COVID-19 cases will go, fortunately, Church said, flu activity is virtually non-existent so far this winter, which has helped to keep additional hospitalizations at bay.