California National Guard troops began working at inundated COVID-19 test sites and patients continued waiting for beds at area hospitals Tuesday as Ventura County's omicron surge kept rising at a record pace.
County public health officials said teams of three or four National guard members were assigned to help staff four area test sites starting Tuesday as part of a statewide deployment.
Rising concerns about omicron have created long lines for tests and caused difficulty in finding appointments for several days.
Ventura County Public Health Director Rigoberto Vargas said hours have been expanded at many sites and 10 new state locales are being launched with opening dates still being negotiated. Nine mobile minibus sites are also being opened.
Two more large testing sites are expected to open Jan. 18 in Oxnard and Moorpark. Each will be able to provide about 2,500 tests a day.
Home test kits remain scarce. Community groups that partner with public health are giving out a limited supply of kits. When more arrive, the county may partner with cities and other groups to expand distribution, Vargas said.
"Any amount we get is a good thing," he said. "The demand is definitely high."
Infection rate nears record
The surge in testing reflects the spread of an omicron variant believed to be three to five times more contagious than the delta variant. Nearly 1 of 4 people being tested for the virus are coming up positive.
The county's infection rate rose to an average of 155.8 cases a day per 100,000 people, according to state data Tuesday. Within days, the rate is likely to break the county's record of an average of 164.1 cases a day set last January.
The pace of infection is climbing sharply but state projections suggest the peak could be hit by Jan. 22, Vargas said.
"We do need to flatten the curve and then see a downward (fall) but we’re not there yet," he said at a county Board of Supervisors meeting Tuesday.
Omicron is filling hospitals across the county. As of Monday, 261 patients who tested positive for COVID-19 had been admitted. About 28% of the patients were receiving care for other conditions and were diagnosed with the coronavirus after admission.
Hospitalizations fell to 252 patients on Tuesday with 44 needing intensive care.
Many of the omicron illnesses aren't as severe as the disease caused by the COVID-19 surge a year ago. But the inflow of COVID-19 patients is hitting hospitals that are already at or near capacity, said Steve Carroll, administrator for the Ventura County Medical Services Agency.
“We don’t have hospital beds to put patients in," Carroll said Tuesday. "Yesterday, there were 90 patients in our eight hospitals that were staying in the emergency rooms waiting for beds.”
The crowded emergency rooms are slowing down ambulances with crews waiting as long as "several hours" to offload patients, Carroll said.
Hospital administrators have said they can find space for patients but worry more about staffing shortages driven by employees calling in sick because of COVID-1exposure or infection. Carroll said three hospitals asked the state for emergency staffing. One was turned down and two received a fraction of the relief requested.
The California Department of Public Health announced Friday hospitals and nursing homes that face extreme shortages despite efforts to add workers can allow asymptomatic employees who test positive to continue working. The employees must wear N95 respirators.
Carroll said he didn't think area facilities had reached the level of staffing shortages required for the new guidance but said some could be on the cusp. He said facilities could opt to use infected workers to care for people who have already tested positive.
'A lot more cautious with omicron'
Ventura County Health Officer Robert Levin told supervisors vaccinations reduce the chances of hospitalizations by 85% with booster shots decreasing chances by 95%. He also outlined the steps he will take over the next few weeks to decrease exposure, including limiting his indoor gatherings to unavoidable events where everyone is vaccinated and has come up negative on a rapid test taken that day.
He said he'll wear surgical masks indoors and also outdoors at events where close contact is likely. He also encouraged social distancing, hand-washing and other precautions.
"I find myself being a lot more cautious with omicron," he said.
For more information on COVID-19 testing, go to venturacountyrecovers.org/coronavirus-testing/.
Tom Kisken covers health care and other news for the Ventura County Star. Reach him at email@example.com or 805-437-0255.
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This article originally appeared on Ventura County Star: National Guard deployed to COVID-19 test sites in Ventura County