Palomar Medical Center COVID wing opened

Under orders from California Gov. Gavin Newsom, Palomar Medical Center's special 200-bed federally built COVID ward was activated Wednesday, Dec. 23 to handle patients from across Southern California/File

In the latest sign that COVID-19 has reached a critical stage in California, Gov. Gavin Newsom Wednesday activated the federal medical station at Palomar Medical Center.

National Guard personnel descended on the regional hospital to take charge of activation of the 202-bed medical station installed on the 10th and 11th floors of the facility back in April. The federal medical station includes general use beds, enhanced care treatment beds, adjustable exam beds for triage, bariatric beds, toddler cots and portable cribs, according to health officials.

“We are bringing a fifth alternative care site out of warm status, we’re standing up that site, an FMS site, down in San Diego,” Newsom said during an online press conference on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, San Diego County announced 39 additional fatalities Wednesday, a new record just nine days after the record hit 32.

During a Wednesday press conference, Chris Van Gorder, CEO of Scripps Health, said that San Diego County is not all that far from running short of ICU beds and staffing is a significant issue.

“The reality is, we’re facing a significant situation here with our capacity and it’s made worse because back in the summer, the spring and summer, it was a regional situation and not a national situation. So back then, we could get traveling nurses, we could get registry nurses, we could hire more nurses locally,” Van Gorder said.

“Today, this is a national situation and we cannot recruit travelers, we cannot recruit registry nurses, and unfortunately, a number of our healthcare providers are also getting sick,” Van Gorder said.

Van Gorder said the county has 24 staffed ICU beds left, out of about 670 available. He added that as hospitals get full and resources are strained, the type of care for anyone needing hospital care will change to crisis care.

With the number of staffed and immediately available intensive care beds dwindling in all San Diego County hospitals, and officials saying they are now converting dormant clinical areas for active use, an extra 200 beds would seem to be just what’s needed, a pressure-relief valve for the most strained locations in the South Bay and East County.

The top two floors of the Escondido hospital have been set up to serve as an FMS site. The site includes 202 beds that can be used for patients that don’t require ICU care. The site could take in patients from other county hospitals that become overwhelmed, Dr. Omar Khawaja, the Chief Medical Officer for Palomar Health, told ABC 10News a few weeks ago.

“It could be beds that we would offload some of the less sick patients from other systems into there so they can handle the sicker patients; we don’t have a solid plan for it yet,” he said.

California’s cumulative ICU bed capacity hit 1.1% on Wednesday, with the Southern California region at 0%. Three other regions were also under the state’s regional stay-at-home orders activated after a region dips under 15% ICU capacity.

Locally, the number of hospitalizations continues to increase even as the number of newly-positive cases shows preliminary signs of hitting a plateau. There were 2,598 new cases listed in San Diego County’s latest daily COVID-19 report for Tuesday, similar to the 2,381 tests that came back positive Monday.

But, as public health officials have warned for months, hospitalizations, ICU admissions and deaths lag infections by weeks. Total local COVID-related hospitalizations hit 1,405 Tuesday, now representing about one-third of the 4,601 people who were in hospital beds. That’s about 600 fewer non-COVID patients than were in beds one month ago, according to county records, a testament to cancelation of most scheduled surgeries and procedures.

Van Gorder said the county and hospitals project that hospitalizations will continue to grow and peak on Jan. 10, 2021, with about 1,827 patients, and ICU cases will peak on Jan. 11, with about 483 patients.

“Today, the governor announced the federal medical station at Palomar Medical Center is going to be activated. It’s a developing situation. We’ll share more information as we get it. But we’re doing everything that we can to address the impact of the transmission of COVID, but each and every one of us now need to do everything we can to impact the situation our hospitals face,” county Supervisor Nathan Fletcher said during Wednesday’s press conference.

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