As Kern County hospitals brace for a peak in COVID-19 cases, they're looking to increase staff should they see a massive influx in patients. The county is also considering ways to staff a temporary medical site it announced earlier this week that will be established at the Kern County Fairgrounds to treat anywhere from 250 to 1,000 spillover patients who can't be treated at hospitals in the coming weeks and perhaps months.
"If there are any non-working medical workers in our community, we would encourage them to contact Public Health at 321-3000," Kern County Public Health Services spokeswoman Michelle Corson wrote in an email Tuesday.
Matt Constantine, who heads the county's public health services department, told the Board of Supervisors Tuesday that manning the temporary facility at the fairgrounds, which is expected to become operational by the end of April, is an immediate issue.
"I do not have adequate staffing to accomplish that and that is a concern for us...," Constantine said. "So I think any additional opportunity to bring back people with (a medical or nursing) background should be explored."
On Monday, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced a call for health workers — any licensed health care workers, public health professionals, medical retirees, medical and nursing students or members of medical disaster response teams in California — to enlist in a newly established California Health Corps to aid with the COVID-19 response. Newsom encouraged doctors, nurses, respiratory therapists, behavioral health scientists, pharmacists, EMTs, medical and administrative assistants and certified nursing assistants "to step up and meet this moment to help California respond to the outbreak."
In many ways, a similar effort is underway locally.
"We're starting now because you can't wait until the surge hits," said Kern Valley Healthcare District CEO Tim McGlew, who is making calculations now for how many additional nurses he would need if the facility has to scale its capacity by 40 percent, which all 10 hospitals in the county have been asked to plan for. McGlew said he is reaching out to recruiters and recent retirees to get the hiring process started.
Nearly all local hospitals are looking to add staff, an effort that has been made easier by the state relaxing certain requirements. For example, requirements for certain health workers to have a California license are being temporarily waived and out-of-state licenses are being accepted. Hospitals are also being allowed to hire nursing students who are on the verge of completing their programs.
"We're beginning to try to source extra workers," said Kern Medical CEO Russel Judd.
Kern Medical is bringing in Bakersfield College nursing students and reaching out to other schools locally for nurse's aides and medical technicians.
With no patients with COVID-19 at Kern Medical as of Wednesday and overall low patient volumes, Judd said staff are being cross-trained to work in other departments and units should they be needed if a wave of patients occurs.
"We are exposing as much of our workforce to other duties as we can. We take someone who typically works in one unit and are getting them oriented to go in other units so we can have the most flexible staff we can," Judd said.
It's unclear how many patients are currently hospitalized in Kern's hospitals for COVID-19. Ridgecrest Regional reported one hospitalization last week. Kern Medical and Kern Valley Healthcare District have had no hospitalizations as of Wednesday. Dignity Health and Adventist health declined to say if they had COVID-19 patients hospitalized in their six local hospitals citing privacy issues.
Bakersfield Memorial CEO Ken Keller said his hospital is hiring.
"We are looking at trying to bring on more people for the anticipated surge ... everything from nurses to nurse's aides to transporters to respiratory techs," he said earlier this week.
At Adventist Health Bakersfield, CEO Sharlet Briggs said the company's network of 22 hospitals in California, Oregon and Hawaii is establishing a float pool of registered nurses and respiratory therapists who can be deployed if needed to Adventist facilities that need more staff.
But the local provider is also reaching out to recent retirees and looking for nursing students to come on board temporarily, Briggs said.
Part of the plan for staffing also includes taking care of current staff so they don't get sick, Briggs said. That means providing them with food, a place to shower and sleep, as well as postponing all elective procedures at the hospital to minimize contact and patient levels.
McGlew of Kern Valley Healthcare District said the rural hospitals could face a different situation than those in Bakersfield. A surge is more likely to occur at urban hospitals, and that would prevent facilities like his from from transferring patients to larger medical complexes in Bakersfield. Therefore, Kern Valley, Ridgecrest and Tehachapi hospitals would need to care for patients in their own community, which will require an additional level of cooperation and a possible pooling of certain medical workers, he said.