On the day Kern County reported its highest-ever number of new coronavirus cases, the Board of Supervisors extended several measures designed to manage a protracted surge of COVID-19 illnesses.
Kern County finds itself once again as a coronavirus hotspot. Public Health Services Director Matt Constantine said during a supervisors meeting on Tuesday that new cases have been identified throughout many of Kern’s skilled nursing facilities and prisons, both of which are vulnerable to rapid spread of the virus.
Of the 2,082 cases reported on Tuesday, around 800 were from prisons or the county’s 19 nursing homes.
However, Kern County is performing poorly across all coronavirus metrics, with significantly higher rates of spread than were being reported just a few weeks ago.
The county is reporting a 16.9% testing positivity rate, more than twice the level needed for the state to determine coronavirus to be “widespread” within a region. For every 100,000 Kern County residents, 66.3 new COVID cases are being identified every day, as of Tuesday.
“Those numbers are concerning. They are clearly very high. We are a factor of five or six off of where we want to be when we were in the red tier,” Constantine told supervisors on Tuesday, referencing the four-tiered state system that allows differing levels of business and social activity depending on a county’s coronavirus metrics.
The county’s hospital capacity has been showing signs of strain as well. As of Tuesday, 284 Kern County patients were hospitalized with COVID-19, with 61 in intensive care units. The county has just 4.8% capacity in its ICUs, with 20 beds available.
Still, Constantine reassured the board that leeway remained within the system, and hospitals were adequately handling the influx of COVID-19 patients.
“This is what (hospitals) are good at,” he said, noting one health care executive recently commented the level of activity seen in local hospitals would not be unusual in a normal flu season. “They manage daily crises every day. They have big traffic accidents. They have a number of family members that get sick. They are good at this. They are really good at figuring out how best to serve the public.”
Nevertheless, supervisors approved two precautionary measures extending contracts for surge capacity efforts. In one measure, supervisors amended a lease with the Kern County Fairgrounds that allows the county to use a portion of the property for an emergency surge expansion site in the event that all local hospital beds are occupied. The lease has been extended twice already and is now scheduled to end in June. The new amendment increases the cost by $480,000, for a new total of around $1.4 million that will come from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act.
In another motion, supervisors extended another lease with the fair, allowing the county to house 15 temporary isolation units on the property to house homeless individuals sick with COVID-19. The maximum cost of this lease is now around $1 million.
“Believe it or not, that agreement will have gone for a full year,” Kern Chief Operations Officer Jim Zervis said during the meeting. “It really shows the length of the pandemic that we just continue to deal with.”
Also as part of its slew of motions, supervisors extended a contract with RightSourcing Inc. that was scheduled to end at the end of December to now end on March 31. The contract allows up to 88 traveling nurses to be staffed in Kern County hospitals in the event that a shortage occurs.
Constantine said some hospitals have begun bringing on the extra nurses.
“We have recognized early on in the county that staffing was probably our area that we needed to focus on the most, and specifically ICU nurses was the area of weakness,” he said. “So we have continued to make that our top priority.”