Intensive care units fill to capacity across California amid Covid-19 surge

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Hospitalizations have reached record highs as the state reported 33,000 new cases in the last 24 hours

Drivers wait for a Covid-19 test at a drive-through test site on 9 December 2020 in Riverside, California.
Drivers wait for a Covid-19 test at a drive-through test site on 9 December 2020 in Riverside, California. Photograph: Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times/REX/Shutterstock
Drivers wait for a Covid-19 test at a drive-through test site on 9 December 2020 in Riverside, California. Photograph: Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times/REX/Shutterstock
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Last modified on Wed 16 Dec 2020 10.40 EST

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Intensive care units filled to capacity across California this weekend, as Covid-19 cases and hospitalizations continued to rise at alarming rates.

Hospitals in the San Joaquin Valley, the state’s agricultural hub, reported on Saturday its ICU bed capacity had dropped to zero for the first time. The region’s capacity fluttered back to 1.5% on Monday, but the situation remained precarious.

Overall ICU capacity across California dropped to 7.4% on Monday, as hospitalizations reached record highs. Meanwhile, infections continued to rise. More than 33,000 new cases were reported statewide in the last 24 hours, even though more than 77% of the state is under regional stay-at-home orders in hopes of easing the pressure on a stretched-thin healthcare system.

California’s rural areas, already operating within a sparser and more spread-out healthcare system than the more populated parts of the state, were a specific point of concern for Gavin Newsom, the governor, when he made the decision to implement the new stay-at-home order earlier this month.

One in 10 residents in the San Joaquin Valley who have taken a Covid test have tested positive. Counties within the region either neared ICU capacity or filled to capacity this weekend – San Benito county had no ICU beds while San Joaquin county had just six beds. Kern county had 10 ICU beds for a county of 900,000, and Kings county had three beds.

Los Angeles county, the country’s most populous county, broke a record again for coronavirus hospitalizations on Sunday, with more than 4,000 people hospitalized for Covid-19. The southern California region currently has a 4.2% ICU capacity.

Regional stay-at-home restrictions went into effect for the nearly 23 million residents in the southern California region and the 4.4 million residents of the San Joaquin Valley region last week, as ordered by Newsom. The 3.5 million residents of the greater Sacramento region reached the threshold on Thursday – the orders took effect on a region-by-region basis when hospital ICU beds in the region dropped to below 15%. In the Bay Area, five counties voluntarily enacted the stay-at-home restrictions before their region fell below 15%.

Across California, public health officials are reporting rates of infection unseen before in the pandemic. California has recorded more than 1.5m cases and more than 21,000 deaths, with numbers expected to keep rising. Public health officials had expected a surge to come with the flu season, as well as with the Thanksgiving travel, but the numbers have been jarring, nonetheless. “This is the most challenging moment since the beginning of this pandemic,” Newsom said last week.

The influx of infections on California’s healthcare system is only further complicated by residents and local officials unwilling to follow public health directives to curb the spread of the virus.

“There is zero evidence that the activities that take place in California businesses, restaurants, gymnasiums and hair salons have any impact at all or are leading in any part to the current surge with Covid-19,” Steve Brandau, a local Fresno county lawmaker, said in a Facebook video after his county entered lockdown. “The whole world is seeing a surge. European nations that were in severe lockdown are seeing a surge. American states like Florida who have done no lockdown are seeing a surge. Is it really doing anything or is it just making our sun king governor feel good about himself?”

Fresno county, which has had issues with public health messaging from local leadership since the beginning of the pandemic, now has just 13 ICU beds available for the entire county of more than 999,000. Brandau was among a number of local officials who contracted Covid-19 after attending an election night dinner.

In San Diego, Newsom issued a cease-and-desist letter to two clubs that continued to operate, despite the stay-at-home order. “Businesses and individuals who fail to comply with necessary public health measures endanger the public health and pose a serious risk to all Californians,” Patty Li, California deputy attorney general, wrote.

California’s healthcare struggles came as an ICU nurse became the first Californian to receive a Covid-19 vaccine. Helen Cordova received a shot of the Pfizer vaccine at Kaiser Permanente Los Angeles medical center, with Newsom present for the historic event. California was set to receive 325,000 initial doses of the vaccine. “Hope has arrived,” the governor tweeted.