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Local hospitals seek 'hundreds' more workers as surge looms

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Adventist Health Bakersfield set up a medical tent on its campus in March to support its response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Hospitals in Bakersfield in recent days have asked local public health officials to initiate a process to find additional workers as spiking rates of COVID-19 strain staffing levels at some facilities and others are preparing for an anticipated surge to hit soon.

Kern County Public Health Services Director Matt Constantine said all six hospitals in Bakersfield had filed requests for more workers by Monday afternoon — Adventist Health Bakersfield, Kern Medical, Bakersfield Heart Hospital, Bakersfield Memorial Hospital, Mercy Downtown and Mercy Southwest.

Constantine said a request for 199 workers from Mercy hospitals was received over the weekend followed by the other hospitals on Monday. A full tally of requested staff was not available but Constantine said "it will be several hundred, if not more."

When a request for more workers is received, the county tries to fill the request first but Kern is unable to do that right now, Constantine said. Instead, the county is seeking additional workers from a regional network through the state office of emergency services. If workers can't be supplied that way, the request goes to the state to fill, Constantine said.

The hospitals' requests come as 2,000 new cases of the virus in Kern were reported since Saturday, and as teams of active duty U.S. Air Force doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers were deployed to five locations around the state, including hospitals in Visalia and Fresno, which are facing their own critical staff shortages.

At least some of the demand for more workers locally is to meet immediate staffing needs, Constantine said.

"Employees are working really hard, they don’t have any breaks or relief," Constantine said. "Hospitals are really busy right now."

But hospital officials reached Monday said it was an anticipatory need for the coming weeks and months as hospitals see more cases and implement plans to grow capacity.

Ken Keller, president and CEO of Bakersfield Memorial Hospital, said the requests are to meet staffing levels for when hospitals have to ramp up capacity. All hospitals in the state were asked to develop plans to boost capacity by 20 percent, Keller said.

"We’ve got the capacity and plans to do so but the issue is we're going to need help with staffing to do so," Keller said, adding that Memorial is seeking nurses, respiratory therapists, nurse's aides and technicians.

Sharlet Briggs, CEO of Adventist Health, said hospitals are typically staffed according to patients in the hospital. At the 254-bed downtown Bakersfield hospital, that's usually around 85 percent, she said.

"We have beds. Beds isn’t the problem. We can take anybody who comes in but now you have to look at staffing and make sure you have the staff to take care of them," Briggs said.

Mercy Downtown and Mercy Southwest hit capacity two weeks ago and ambulance traffic had to be diverted to other hospitals.

It's been hard to pinpoint a cause for the drastic increase in new cases that began Saturday, when just under 500 new cases were reported, but they will likely contribute to a rise in hospitalizations down the road.

In early July the number of people heading to community testing sites began to climb quickly, Constantine said, which gave officials an inkling there could be a large increase in cases. Then, major labs like Quest Diagnostics and Westpac faced supply shortages and delays processing tests. At the same time, cases in congregate facilities in the county have grown as well and those numbers are counted in the county total. California Correctional Institution in Tehachapi, for example, has had one of the largest prison outbreaks in the state, with 315 confirmed cases among inmates and more than 100 cases affecting staff.

But according to Andrew Noymer, associate professor of public health at UC Irvine, the jump in Kern's cases is exactly what you'd expect in "an exponentially growing pandemic," where the rate of increase is proportional to the size of the number of cases.

"It just takes a while for the fire to get started," Noymer said. "When the kindling is just sparking and not much is happening it’s easy to assume not much is going on. But once the fire gets going, it's apparent those sparks are important."

The county public health services department is grappling with its own staffing issues as it tries to track all the new cases and do contact tracing, Constantine said.

"We had a good staffing plan that worked and was successful and (new cases) quickly overwhelmed us," Constantine said. Workers from all areas of the public health department, including inspectors and clerical staff, have been trained to input new cases and do contact tracing. Schedules have been adjusted for coverage seven days a week. Extra help has been hired and the county's human resources department is exploring available staff in other county departments that could be called on to help.

For each positive case, there is an average of four contacts that must be located, Constantine said.

That means for the new cases since Saturday, there's about 8,000 additional people to locate and call.

And the boom in testing earlier this month hasn't stopped yet, Constantine said, as daily reports from testing centers remain consistently high.

"Until that changes," Constantine said, "we don’t expect to see any decrease in the workload."