By Ana B. Ibarra, CalMatters
Imperial County on the Mexican border is some 600 miles away from the state capital. But when its two area hospitals recently began to run out of intensive care unit beds, it had to transport critically ill patients as far north as Sacramento.
The remote county of about 180,000 people has California’s highest rate of COVID-19 cases. It has also sent at least 500 patients to hospitals outside its county lines, demonstrating that despite the state’s emphasis on local control during the pandemic, an outbreak in one county can be felt almost anywhere in the state.
As the coronavirus rages through California and hospitalizations rise, finding intensive care unit beds and staff for patients in hot spots, like Imperial, is becoming increasingly challenging, hospital and public health officials warn.
“As other counties reopened and their own beds are being used, it is tougher and tougher to find beds,” said Dr. Katherine Staats, medical director for Imperial County’s emergency medical services agency.
It is a nightmare scenario no county or state wants to face: hospitals overrun with critically ill patients, and no place to put them. Nationwide, hospitals spent months preparing for a surge, but health officials say a rapid rise in sick patients can quickly overwhelm entire regions.
This week in Texas, for instance, providers and hospitals reported wait lists for ICU beds. One San Antonio hospital reported that at one point, it had 21 COVID-positive patients waiting for a bed in its emergency room.
While spiking, California has not reached such levels, although some patients in Imperial County have had to wait up to three days before being transferred elsewhere for a bed, said Adolphe Edward, chief executive officer of El Centro Regional Medical Center. On Thursday, he had one ICU bed open.
During any other type of emergency, Imperial County would usually only rely on neighboring counties for aid, said Staats. But some of its neighbors are nearing their limit, too. Riverside County, for example, was using 90% of its ICU bed capacity as of Wednesday, according to county public health spokesperson Jose Arballo. Riverside had five patients from Imperial County at the time.
Unlike other types of disasters, there is no definitive number of patients and no end to the crisis in sight, forcing Imperial to rely on other counties’ resources, Staats said.
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