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UPDATE DEC. 18, 2020:  The ICU capacity for Southern California has dropped to zero, meaning ICU beds are 100% full as some local hospitals are diverting ambulances, delaying treatment for critically ill patients.


Grim news offsets relief over arrival of first 28,000 vaccine doses locally

By Miriam Raftery

Photo via Governor’s office:  These medical workers are among the first in California to be vaccinated with the newly arrived COVID-19 vaccine. 

December 15, 2020 (San Diego) – With the COVID-19 death toll spiking and hospital ICU capacity dropping to just 1.7% in Southern California, the state has ordered 60 refrigerated storage units to use as makeshift morgues. In addition, 5,000 body bags have been distributed to San Diego, Los Angeles and Inyo Counties, Governor Gavin Newsom announced today.

Falling ICU capacity and rising deaths statewide and locally

The state has averaged 163 deaths a day from COVID-19 in the past week – up from 41 a day just one month earlier. 

San Diego County  reported 32 new COVID-19 deaths yesterday, along with 1,863 new cases. In the past week, 43 community outbreaks have been confirmed, including six more yesterday – five in businesses and one in a faith-based agency setting.

Although San Diego’s ICU capacity is at 16%, well above the Southern California region’s dismal 1.7% rate, those remaining local beds could fill up fast as hospitals overwhelmed in nearby counties send patients to San Diego County. Under mutual aid agreements, hospitals here must accept those patients, unless the local hospitals are full, too. That could lead to triaging of patients – meaning deciding which critically ill patients may be denied admission to ICU units—a situation healthcare workers hope to avoid. Besides COVID-19 patients, this could also negatively affect others, such as victims of motor vehicle crashes and those suffering other medical emergencies.

If our hospitals fill up, sending San Diego patients elsewhere may be difficult or impossible, with Southern California counties overall with just 1.7% capacity remaining and the next nearest region, the San Joaquin Valley, at 1.6%.  The Bay Area, Sacramento and Northern California regions are better, for the moment, at 15.8%, 14.9% and 29.8% ICU capacity. 

First vaccines arrive

There is some good news amid the gloom and doom.  The first 327,000 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine by Pfizer arrived in California yesterday, including around 28,000 doses that have just arrived in San Diego County (photo, left, via County Health Dept.)  The state is expecting another 393,000 doses next week, according to the Governor’s office. 

The first of the local doses will go to acute care medical workers, though there are only enough doses for 72% of workers in this first tier category. Each healthcare system will decide how to prioritize and administer these vaccines to its employees in regional acute health care hospitals.

Also in the first tier are residents and employees at skilled nursing facilities, though distribution to these facilities is being handled separately by the state. In addition to the Pfizer vaccine, vaccines by other companies are currently undergoing review by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, with a likelihood that more vaccines will soon be approved and distributed locally.

“The arrival of the vaccine is great news and will give us the best tool to slow the spread of the pandemic,” says Dr. Wilma Wooten, the County’s public health officer. “ However, this does not mean people should not continue taking the necessary precautions to avoid getting COVID-19.”

The current stay-home order and shutdown of many businesses will continue for three weeks from its implementation, or until the region’s ICU capacity rises above 15%. The shutdowns have added to the economic hardship facing many businesses such as restaurants, that are prohibited from serving meals indoors or outdoors, only takeout or delivery.

State Senator Brian Jones (R-Santee) today called on the Governor to add restaurants to the list of essential businesses, in hopes of preventing permanent closure now that federal aid has run out and the Senate has failed to allow a vote on any new pandemic relief measures for businesses or workers.  Since many outbreaks have been tied to restaurants, however, where people must take off masks when eating or drinking, it is unclear whether the Governor would consider such a proposal amid the worst COVID spike yet.

Governor Newsom today called the need for emergency steps to bring in more body bags and mobile refrigerated trucks to hold the bodies overloading morgues’ capacity “sobering.”

He said he doesn’t want to scare people, but does want the public to understand that COVID-19 is a deadly disease – one that is now killing more people daily in the U.S. than the 9-11 terrorist attacks did.

“We need to be mindful of where we are in this current journey together to the vaccine,” he said, urging everyone to wear a mask and stay home except for essential needs. “We are not at the finish line yet.”

Miriam Raftery, editor and founder of East County Magazine, has over 35 years of journalism experience. She has won more than 350 journalism awards from the Society of Professional Journalists, San Diego Press Club, and the American Society of Journalists & Authors. Her honors include the Sol Price Award for responsible journalism and three James Julian awards for public interest reporting from SPJ’s San Diego chapter. She has received top honors for investigative journalism, multicultural reporting, coverage of immigrant and refugee issues, politics, breaking news and more. Thousands of her articles have appeared in national and regional publications.

East County Magazine gratefully acknowledges the Facebook Journalism Project for its COVID-19 Relief Fund grant to support our local news reporting including impacts on vulnerable communities during the COVID-19 pandemic. Learn more: #FacebookJournalismProject and https://www.facebook.com/fbjournalismproject/.

You can donate to support our local journalism efforts during the pandemic at https://www.EastCountyMedia.org/donate.


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