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UPDATED: Critical care beds fill up at local hospitals as COVID-19 surge looms

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The critical care units at area hospitals are filling up, driven by increasing numbers of COVID-19 cases, hospital leaders said Monday while urging the public to do all it can to minimize further spread of the virus. 

About 120 patients were in intensive care units at Kern's 10 acute care hospitals on Monday, including several critical care patients being held in emergency departments because some hospitals have no free ICU beds. About 40 percent of those patients, or approximately 50, are COVID-19 patients.

In total, there are about 150 ICU beds among Kern's 10 hospitals, leaving about 31 available.

Another 78 ICU beds can be added when hospital surge plans are fully implemented, according to Kern County Public Health Services spokeswoman Michelle Corson.

Despite the growing number of ICU patients, hospital administrators said more beds would be added to accommodate more patients if needed.

"This is what we do and we’re prepared to handle it," said Russell Judd, CEO of Kern Medical, which is the only trauma center between Fresno and Los Angeles.

Kern Medical had no ICU beds available as of Monday and was having to hold overflow patients in the emergency department, Judd said. 

Mercy Southwest and Ridgecrest Regional hospitals had also reached their ICU capacity, officials said.

Bakersfield Heart Hospital and Adventist Health Tehachapi each were down to one free ICU bed, two ICU beds were available at Adventist Health's Delano hospital and four of the 20 ICU beds at Mercy Downtown were still free, hospital officials reported.

The area's two largest hospitals had the most availability in their ICUs. About half the ICU beds, or roughly 15, were free at Bakersfield Memorial, said CEO Ken Keller. Adventist Health Bakersfield had 12 beds free in its 36-bed unit, according to spokeswoman Megan Simpson.

Administrators at Kern Valley Hospital could not be reached for comment.

At Kern Medical, just two of its 24 ICU beds are occupied by COVID-19 patients. The other beds are mainly filled by trauma patients. Trauma cases are up about 20 percent since July, Judd said, though he was unsure why that was. Kern Medical has 17 other COVID-19 patients in non-ICU beds. 

And at Bakersfield Heart Hospital, none of the ICU patients are COVID-19 patients, said spokeswoman Laura Sabedra.

Hospitalizations are expected to continue increasing locally in the coming weeks and while more ICU beds can be added at hospitals, staffing those beds could eventually become a concern, Keller said. With a nationwide surge in COVID-19 cases, compounded by flu season, nurses are in increasingly high demand, he said.

Dr. Hemmal Kothary, chief medical officer of Dignity Health's Central California division who oversees Bakersfield Memorial and both Mercy hospitals in Bakersfield, said the spread of COVID-19 during the Thanksgiving and upcoming Christmas holidays threatens to strain hospitals in January. Typically, hospitalizations rise several weeks after new cases increase.

"We have just started to see the initial wave of Thanksgiving and in a couple weeks we have Christmas. I think the two together could make January the worst month of the year in our nation," Kothary said.

But he was optimistic about a vaccine being in the hospitals' hands as early as Friday, pending FDA approval this week.

Kothary said he anticipates 1,000 doses each for Bakersfield Memorial and the Mercy hospitals. Frontline staff, such as nurses and physicians, will be the first to be immunized, he said.

Dignity's top local nursing administrator urged the public to reconsider Christmas plans and avoid gatherings.

"Where we’re seeing the most transmission of COVID is in people’s living rooms," said Terri Church, vice president and chief nursing officer for Bakersfield Memorial Hospital and Dignity Health Central California Division. 

"We may have beds but chances are we will not have staff to take care of all the people unless we curtail our holiday celebrations."

Elective procedures continue at Dignity's three hospitals and Kothary said anyone who needs care shouldn't hesitate to go to a hospital for fear of contracting the coronavirus. He said measures are in place to keep everyone safe. 

"We want to make sure we encourage people that need to get to the hospital to go … and not worry about getting COVID," Kothary said.