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In California, COVID-19 Optimism Is Tempered By Rising Infections, Full ICUs

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Across much of the nation, guarded optimism about the impending vaccine is tempered by the ugly reality of surging coronavirus infections and hospitalizations. California, where much of the state is under a second stay-at-home order, is among the hardest hit, and in several counties, intensive care units are now overwhelmed. And some health officials warn there is worse to come. NPR's Eric Westervelt reports.

ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: The winter coronavirus surge health experts warned about in the spring is now ravaging California. And this time, a frightening 12% of those infected are requiring hospitalization. Among the hardest hit is the Central Valley in the state's farm belt. Fresno City Council this week declared a state of emergency, citing a dire shortage of ICU beds and staffing.

AMY ARLUND: We are in disaster mode. We've had to shuffle patients around the hospital as much as possible. But, yeah, we have no more beds, really. Truthfully, it's that dire.

WESTERVELT: Amy Arlund, a veteran registered nurse, works overnights in the intensive care unit at Fresno's Kaiser Medical Center. She says the usual backup plans aren't really working because there are no rooms in regional hospitals to divert patients to.

ARLUND: So now we're stuck. We have some pop-up tents. We are looking at converting conference rooms to patient care areas. We've even had to talk about converting our cafeteria.

WESTERVELT: Tents and emergency plans are kicking in elsewhere across the state, including in Santa Clara County, where the hospital situation is worsening by the day. There are now only about three dozen ICU beds available for a county that's home to almost 2 million people in the heart of Silicon Valley.

AHMAD KAMAL: It's absolutely dire. It's absolutely, absolutely dire. You know, the million-dollar question is how much can we stretch our hospitals before they're at the breaking point?

WESTERVELT: Dr. Ahmad Kamal is Santa Clara County's director of health preparedness. He says area hospitals are scrambling to try to boost capacity. That includes creative reworking of spaces, deploying nurses to inpatient care and ramping down elective surgeries. But Dr. Kamal warns, it's not just COVID-19 patients. The usual traumas aren't going away.

KAMAL: Once the hospitals get full, it doesn't matter what you're sick with. It could be a car accident. It could be a heart attack. We are very concerned about having a bed available for people. And the only way that they're going to be able to survive without getting into the situation of patients in tents and patients in parking lot is if we actually start bending that curve downward.

WESTERVELT: But as in many other parts of the state and nation slammed by the virus, even if you can create pop-up patient areas, there's no one to take those shifts, says Dan Lynch, an emergency medical services director for four counties in the Central Valley.

DAN LYNCH: They just don't have the staff to staff those bed. And our health care workers - they're exhausted.

WESTERVELT: The state says more help for counties is on the way, including several hundred temporary ICU nurses, some from out of state and overseas. But county health officials say it's just not clear when that relief might arrive.

The hospital situation also is deteriorating in parts of Southern California. In Los Angeles, the daily death rate this week shot up, and the overall death toll there topped 8,100 people. The weight of those numbers pierced an otherwise routine PowerPoint media update from LA County's public health director, Dr. Barbara Ferrer.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BARBARA FERRER: While this trend line provides a frightening visual of our reality, the more terrible truth is that over 8,000 people - sorry - (crying) over 8,000 people who were beloved members of their families are not coming back. And their deaths are an incalculable loss to their friends and their family, as well as our community. Next slide.

WESTERVELT: Ferrer's cracking voice may have reflected the weariness of a nation tired of the pandemic and its awful toll.

Eric Westervelt, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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