Official: Some Riverside County hospitals are in 'surge' mode but not 'overwhelmed'

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A Riverside County emergency services official told the Board of Supervisors Tuesday that the recent jump in coronavirus patient case loads prompted a half dozen hospitals countywide to switch to "surge plans" to accommodate the infirm, but the facilities are not operating beyond their limits.

"We have six hospitals that are over capacity," Emergency Management Department Director Bruce Barton said. "They are using their surge plans. But that's not the same thing as being overwhelmed. They are not overwhelmed. They still have the capacity."

Barton confirmed that just under 500 COVID-19 patients are receiving treatment in the county's 17 acute-care medical facilities. Among those patients are 135 individuals who have been admitted to intensive care units, he said.

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ICU beds countywide are at 94% capacity, while sub acute beds are at 68% capacity, according to the EMD director.

Some hospitals have disproportionately higher numbers of coronavirus patients than others.

Barton noted that all of the hospitals have the capability of operating beyond their licensed capacities -- a point that has been emphasized repeatedly. Last week, he told the board that most or all of the medical facilities can add 30% more bed space on short notice to facilitate patients.

"There has been a vigorous and robust planning effort (in preparation) for a surge," Barton said. "Some hospitals are deeper into it than others. It's all about their internal capacity."

He said hospitals have the option to switch to over-capacity operations well in advance of actually being inundated with patients, be they COVID-19 cases or others.

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As to the reasons for the significant rise in coronavirus-related hospitalizations -- which are up 130% compared to a month ago -- Barton could not "pin down any one thing."

"Could be a number of reasons ... like the protests we've had," the EMD director said. "It's hard to have a crystal ball."

According to Barton, the EMD and other county agencies are assisting hospitals by every means possible, including masks for staff.

The county has come into possession of 2 million N95 masks, and another million are expected to be available for distribution by the end of the month, Barton said.

The county received $431 million in federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief & Economic Security -- CARES -- Act funding for just acquisitions. 

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