RIVERSIDE COUNTY, CA — The number of patients hospitalized with COVID-19 in Riverside County continues to burden the health care system.
The number of COVID-19-positive patients in Riverside County hospitals climbed to 901 Tuesday, an increase of 243 people over the last week. Out of Tuesday's total, 139 patients are in intensive care units, an uptick of 45 people compared with one week ago.
Some hospitals in Riverside County are struggling to meet demand in the face of high patient volumes, but COVID-19 is just one of the factors, the head of the county's Emergency Management Department said Tuesday.
"Our emergency rooms are just getting hammered," EMD Director Bruce Barton said during a presentation to the Board of Supervisors. "We've seen a 77 percent increase in COVID patients in our hospitals over the last 10 days. But there's a larger non-COVID census laying on top of that COVID patient load."
According to Barton, since the holidays, only 28 percent of the patients going into emergency rooms throughout the county have been diagnosed with the coronavirus. He did not cite some of the other illnesses affecting the medical system.
Bed capacities at hospitals countywide are stretched thin, with 91 percent of established general care beds taken and about 80 percent of intensive care unit beds occupied, Barton said.
The current daily volume of emergency room visits countywide is 2,600 to 3,000, according to the EMD director. With 901 COVID patients receiving hospital treatment currently, the number is just over half of the nearly 1,700 who were hospitalized with viral complications a year ago, during the COVID-19 surge that peaked on Jan. 10, 2021, Barton said.
According to Barton, the busiest medical facility in the county by far remains the county-owned Riverside University Medical Center in Moreno Valley.
"The hospital initiated a surge build-out, taking on additional capacity, taking on patients from throughout the region," he said. "They're extremely busy over there. They have close to 500 patients admitted."
Barton said the county is well-stocked with ventilators, personal protective equipment and "surge tents" that can be deployed at medical facilities for triage purposes.
"We have a large cache. We're holding up pretty well," the EMD director said.
Staffing is a separate issue. Barton said the county is trying to meet hospitals' and skilled nursing facilities' resource requests by temporarily assigning county-hired emergency medical technicians and nurses to the facilities that are in a deficit. The state has not yet responded to requests for supplemental staffing to make up shortages, he said.
Riverside County is not alone. Statewide, COVID-19 patients are putting stress on hospital systems. On Saturday, California Department of Public Health Acting Director Cassie Dunham issued a letter to acute care hospitals and skilled nursing facilities stating that health care providers who have tested positive for COVID-19 and are asymptomatic can return to work immediately without isolation and without testing but must wear an N95 respirator. The same goes for providers who have been exposed to the virus and are asymptomatic.
"Facilities implementing this change must have made every attempt to bring in additional registry or contract staff and must have considered modifications to non-essential procedures," the letter reads.
Workers who are positive and asymptomatic or have been exposed and are asymptomatic "should preferably be assigned to work with COVID-19 positive patients," the letter continues. "However, this may not always be possible in settings such as the emergency department in which you may not know which patients are COVID-19 positive or in areas where you may be experiencing extreme staffing shortages."
The looser protocols are in place through Feb. 1 in response to "critical staffing shortages currently being experienced across the health care continuum because of the rise in the Omicron variant," the letter said.
The California Nurses Association condemned the decision by the CDPH.
“We want to care for our patients and see them get better — not potentially infect them," said CNA President Cathy Kennedy. "Sending nurses and other health care workers back to work while infected is dangerous. If we get sick, who will be left to care for our patients and community?”
It's not clear how many Riverside County hospitals are using the updated CDPH protocols to help offset staffing shortages.
Not all COVID-19-positive patients in local hospitals are seriously ill with the virus — some didn't even know they were infected until they checked in to get treatment for some other ailment and were tested for the virus. State figures do not provide the breakdown, Riverside University Health System spokesperson Jose Arballo confirmed.
Regardless, all COVID-19-positive patients do put a strain on the health care system. The patients require resource-intensive transmission-based precautions, including isolation rooms, cohorted staff where possible and personal protective equipment, according to health officials.
Increased hospitalizations countywide are exacerbating another problem that's not new.
Staff from the county Emergency Management Department presented data Tuesday to the Riverside County Board of Supervisors showing a 110 percent increase in recent weeks in patient offload delays at hospitals. While delays were increasing before the pandemic hit, officials acknowledged that added wait times are being influenced by coronavirus cases.
According to a statement posted to the board's agenda by Supervisors Jeff Hewitt and Kevin Jeffries, "patients having to remain on the ambulance gurney for several hours after arrival at the hospital is now commonplace."
Amid hospital woes, the virus continues to spread countywide. A total of 12,058 new COVID-19 cases were reported over the last week, bringing the total to 418,479 infections since the pandemic began. The total does not include positive at-home test results.
As of Tuesday, 58.9 percent of county residents age 5 and older were fully vaccinated against COVID-19, while 24.6 percent of people 16 and older had received a booster. Vaccination information can be found here.
Over the last week, 46 COVID-19 deaths have been reported countywide, bringing the total to 5,635 fatalities since the pandemic began. The fatalities are "trailing indicators" because of delays processing death certificates and can go back weeks, according to health officials.
Riverside University Health System showed that more than 99 percent of the county's 2021 COVID-19 deaths occurred in unvaccinated people.week by
Gov. Gavin Newsom on Saturday unveiled a proposed $2.7 billion COVID- 19 emergency response package as part of his next budget proposal, including a $1.4 billion emergency appropriation request to bolster testing capacity, accelerate vaccination and booster efforts, support front-line workers, strengthen the health care system and "battle misinformation."
On Friday, Newsom announced the activation of the California National Guard to provide additional testing capacity amid the national surge in COVID- 19 cases driven by the omicron variant.
Patch Editor Toni McAllister and City News Service contributed to this report.