At least three teams of National Guard health care workers are assisting hospitals in Kern County and more are expected soon at other area hospitals as part of a state effort to provide additional support to COVID-19 hot spots.
The teams are working at Kern Medical, Adventist Health Bakersfield and Adventist Health Delano Regional Medical Center and consist of doctors, nurses, paramedics and respiratory therapists, said Matt Constantine, who heads up Kern County's Public Health Services Department.
Adventist Health Bakersfield CEO Sharlet Briggs said in a statement that six Guard members are assisting in the downtown hospital's emergency department. Earlier this week, a field unit tent donated by International Medical Corps went up at the hospital to triage incoming patients and separate those that are symptomatic for the virus.
A seven-member team is assisting with all levels of care at the Delano hospital.
"We appreciate the collaboration and support, because together, we are all playing an important role to address COVID-19," Briggs said in the statement.
Briggs urged the community to continue to follow CDC and state guidelines to wear masks in public and practice social distancing as a way to stop transmission of the virus and also support local hospitals staffs.
"Nothing is more important than ensuring the safety of our patients and providing support for our physicians, nurses and staff," Briggs said.
Constantine said the National Guard teams will stay for 72 hours and their stay can be extended another 72 hours.
Kern County's COVID-19 outbreak has worsened precipitously in recent weeks. The county had one of the highest case rates in the state on Thursday and Friday, with more than 400 cases of COVID-19 per 100,000 residents in the past 14 days. With nearly 1 in 5 tests coming back positive in a recent seven-day period, Kern had the highest positivity rate of any county on Friday.
However in other indicators, the county wasn't faring as badly. It has the 10th highest COVID-19 mortality rate in the state and its hospitalizations had remained fairly stable over the past two weeks.
Kern County's 10 hospitals reached capacity one week ago due to a rise in COVID-19 admission and requested additional staffing through local and state channels in order to implement "surge plans" that would open up more beds in their facilities, which has resulted in the National Guard deployments to local hospitals.
Separately, the county signed a $12 million contract this week to bring in additional ICU nurses to help with the growing number of seriously ill COVID patients, who can sometimes spend weeks in an ICU on ventilator support.
An alternative care site at the Kern County Fairgrounds that is able to provide care for less critical patients but not serious ICU cases is ready to go if needed but has not been activated at this time, Constantine said. A primary reason is that it's unclear how it would be staffed since so many health care workers are needed in the hospitals right now.
A model used by the county accurately predicted the growth in critical care hospitalizations.
The county announced in mid-June that a Penn State forecasting model predicted the 78 available ICU beds countywide would reach capacity by late July. As of Thursday, the county had 76 COVID-19 patients in the ICU, according to state data.
That same model predicts a steady increase in hospitalizations to continue through February, with more than 400 COVID-19 patients in ICU beds at that time. Local hospitals' surge plans would increase capacity to about 300 ICU beds, which the model estimates are likely to be filled up by November.
The latest figures show 240 people hospitalized in Kern County for COVID-19. A separate projection, developed by the state that combines a number of models, shows ICU patients increasing to 388 in the next month. The state forecasting tool also anticipates an additional 400 deaths from COVID-19 in Kern in the next month.
Kern County's lead epidemiologist, Kim Hernandez, said that models are just estimates.
"It’s kind of like the weather," Hernandez said. "If you’re asking about the weather for next month it's not going to be as reliable as tomorrow's forecast."