Kern hospitals, ambulances pushed to the limit by COVID-19

Sam Morgen
The Bakersfield Californian
Kern Medical CEO Russell Judd speaking at Kern County press conference on Thursday

Medical facilities in Kern County are being pushed to the limit as more and more residents contract COVID-19.

During a Thursday news conference, Kern Medical CEO Russell Judd said all local hospitals have reached the point of maximum capacity and were beginning to implement surge plans.

A state model predicted the county would run out of staffing and space to treat coronavirus patients by the end of July. With hospitals reaching capacity several times over the last few weeks, and no sign that infections will decrease any time soon, Kern officials have started scrambling in search of new staff to work in intensive care units.

“What we thought was going to be in March or April is upon us in July and August,” Judd said in reference to early predictions that hospitals would exceed capacity last spring.

He later added the number of COVID-positive patients continued to increase, taxing resources. “We do know that there are more patients, they’re sicker patients, so we need to be able to prepare for that increased number.”

In anticipation of even more residents needing medical care, the county plans to use federal CARES Act money to bring in intensive care unit nurses from across the country to allow local hospitals to staff ICUs above their licensed capacity. At the Board of Supervisors meeting Tuesday, the county plans to retroactively authorize a contract with a staffing agency to bring the nurses to Kern.

“There’s not enough RNs who live in Kern County to provide this level of care,” Judd said, later explaining that the traveling nurses were sometimes paid in excess of triple normal wages. “However, we’re securing this now in anticipation of the continued increase in the number of cases. We are firm believers that if we

waited until the crisis hit and we got to the point where we had to have them now, there would not be any nurses available.”

Ambulance services, too, are being pushed to the limit. Public Health Services Director Matt Constantine reported Hall Ambulance was experiencing record numbers of calls, causing them to struggle with the increased workload. He added the company had reportedly driven more than 1,000 COVID-positive individuals or individuals suspected of being COVID-positive.

So many ambulances have been needed recently, that some of Hall's leadership team, who are paramedics or EMTs, have gotten behind the wheel on certain shifts to help with staffing.

Mark Corum, director of Hall's media services, said that Hall had subcontracted with Liberty Ambulances out of Ridgecrest to cover Hall's California City region. This will allow the company to divert more ambulances to the Bakersfield area.

Still, Hall requested two state "strike teams" to reinforce the company's service. The teams, which consist of five ambulances each, will be in Bakersfield over the weekend.

"Everybody at Hall Ambulance is giving 200 percent, but it’s swelled up to the point where we felt compelled to be proactive and say hey we need to get some additional assistance," Corum said of the strike teams.

He added that backlogs in local emergency rooms meant ambulance crews sometimes waited up to four hours to drop off a patient, and local hospitals had overburdened the company with interfacility transfers to places outside of Bakersfield.

"It’s created a tremendous burden because you only have a finite number of paramedics and EMTs that you can put on the schedule," he said.

Hall is working with the county to create a plan where some patients could be dropped off at urgent care locations rather than emergency rooms, easing the overcrowding, he continued.

"This would help reduce the burden of ER overcrowding, decrease our time on task, and allow for more ambulances to be available to respond," he wrote in an email.

The increase in daily reported cases comes as U.S. Rep. Kevin McCarthy has worked to secure additional testing resources for the county. On Wednesday, McCarthy announced the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services had approved surge testing capacity in Bakersfield.

That could allow up to 60,000 people to be tested quickly, Constantine said during the meeting. The county plans to announce up to three new testing sites to accommodate the federal government’s action.

The new sites would come with the ability to analyze test samples in their own lab, Constantine said, with a turnaround time that shouldn't exceed 48 hours.

Sam Morgen can be reached at 661-395-7415. Follow him on Twitter: @smorgenTBC