Increase In Coronavirus Hospitalizations Eyed In Riverside County

Toni McAllister

RIVERSIDE COUNTY, CA — As as the number of coronavirus infections continues climbing in Riverside County, hospitals throughout the region are generally equipped to handle a surge in COVID-19 cases, an official told the Board of Supervisors.

"Several hospitals have implemented surge plans," Emergency Management Director Bruce Barton told the board Tuesday. "And each hospital has committed to capacity that's 30% to 35% beyond their licensed capacity."

Barton and other public health officials addressed the recent rapid growth in documented COVID-19 cases, saying the numbers were adding to burdens on the 17 hospitals within the county, but none were out of beds for virus patients or others in need of medical care.

The county made headlines this week after data from Riverside University Health System showed the local intensive care unit beds were at 98.7% capacity, and over the weekend the number of patients hospitalized for COVID-19 spiked.

Countywide, hospital bed capacity has been between 61% and 68% in recent days, while the ICU bed usage has been between 95% and 99%, Barton said. But he reiterated that most hospitals have the ability to quickly add bed space beyond their licensed capacities. He said during the 2017 flu pandemic that hit the county and other parts of the state and country, some local hospitals were operating in excess of their licensed capacities by 30%.

The number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients rose Tuesday to 403 countywide, an increase of 38 people since Monday and a spike of 85 patients since Friday's reporting by Riverside University Health System-Public Health. Of the 403 patients, 109 of them are in ICU.

The EMD director said only about a quarter of the ICU beds countywide were currently being used by COVID-19 patients. The rest were being utilized by stroke, lung and other patients.

While hospitalizations are being watched, so is the county's COVID-19 positivity rate. According to Health Director Kim Saruwatari, the county's positivity rate for COVID-19 screening is running close to 12%, while the state's preferred benchmark is 8%. She said the infection rate translates to 202 per 100,000 residents.

Saruwatari told the board that the "doubling rate" — when the number of COVID-19 cases increases 100% over a given period — is at 27 days. The metric is considered a key indicator of moderation or intensification of viral spread. It is in the severe category when the doubling rate is seven days.

Newly released county Department of Public Health data show the total number of COVID-19 cases reported since March now stands at 17,296 — with 7,854 of those people having recovered from the virus.

During Tuesday's board meeting, Supervisor Chuck Washington observed that the number of recoveries "is likely higher."

"You've got people out there who never knew they were infected and have recovered," he said.

The number of people in Riverside County who have died from complications tied to the virus is now 457, compared to 440 confirmed deaths reported Monday.

To slow the infection rate, on Monday county Public Health Officer Dr. Cameron Kaiser ordered all bars in the county to close based on a recommendation — not a mandate — from the California Department of Public Health. Bars were permitted to reopen on June 12 after being closed for nearly three months after the pandemic began in March.

"After they opened on June 12, cases started to climb," Kaiser said.

A myriad of other factors were likely contributing to the recent spread of the virus in Riverside County. In addition to businesses reopening, churches have also welcomed back parishioners, and Kaiser said the recent demonstrations against racism were likely hotbeds for viral contact. In May, the Riverside County Board of Supervisors rescinded a county health order mandating face masks and social distancing. After the relaxation, it was feared that the general public was dropping its guard against the virus.

Kaiser warned that stern measures would be imposed to prevent bars from conducting business.

California Department of Public Health guidance released over the weekend states that "public health professionals within California and throughout the nation have identified bars as the highest risk sector of non-essential businesses currently open."

According to the county health order, restaurants and breweries that offer dine-in services may remain in operation and continue to serve alcoholic beverages, but those must be part of the overall transaction, with meals.

There has been some public concern that Riverside County's rising COVID-19 hospitalizations are a result of transfers of coronavirus patients from Imperial County, where there are only two hospitals. Last week Gov. Gavin Newsom recommended that Imperial County issue a local public health stay-at-home order. He said he would step in if the county did not issue an order. More than 500 patients from Imperial County have been transferred to hospitals in other counties, including Riverside County, Newsom said.

Barton told the board that transfers of coronavirus patients from Imperial County has been an ongoing process involving other jurisdictions as well. Even Sacramento County has received patients.

However, only five individuals from Imperial County are currently hospitalized in Riverside County, according to Barton. He said the total patient count from Imperial County to Riverside County was slightly more than 100.

—City News Service and Patch Editor Toni McAllister contributed to this report.

This article originally appeared on the Lake Elsinore-Wildomar Patch