For all its size and economic might, California has long had one of America’s lowest number of hospital beds relative to its population. Now state officials warn that this shortfall, combined with acute staffing shortages, may prove catastrophic.
In the spring, California had some of the earliest outbreaks and was the first state to issue a stay-at-home order. By summer, many Californians thought the worst was behind them, only to see an explosion of cases at the end of June. The number of cases dropped, then plateaued, before skyrocketing again this fall.
Now, California is experiencing its largest surge in coronavirus cases as the nation is on the brink of reaching 100,000 hospitalizations for the first time, according to the Covid Tracking Project. On Sunday, California became the first state to record more than 100,000 cases in a week, according to a New York Times database. The state government estimates that about 12 percent of its confirmed cases end up in a hospital.
Complicating the situation for hospitals is the fact that cases are now exploding in nearly all parts of the country, meaning that healthcare workers cannot be brought from other states as an emergency stopgap like they were in the spring, when the pandemic was mostly concentrated in a few coastal states, experts say.
Even though California has some of the country’s most restrictive measures to prevent the spread of the virus, an influx of people with severe cases of Covid-19 may force overwhelmed hospitals to turn patients away by Christmas, Gov. Gavin Newsom warned this week.
A dearth of hospital beds has been a worldwide problem throughout the pandemic, but California, with a population of 40 million, has a particularly acute shortage.
In addition to beds, a shortage of nursing staff will make handling the surge of virus cases “extraordinarily difficult for us in California,” said Carmela Coyle, the head of the California Hospital Association, which represents 400 hospitals across the state.
“This pandemic is a story of shortage,” Ms. Coyle said. “It’s what has made this pandemic unique and different from other disasters.”
At the county level, health officers are counting down the days until their hospitals are full. Dr. Sara Cody, the chief health officer for Santa Clara County, which includes a large slice of Silicon Valley, projects that hospitals in the county will reach capacity by mid-December.
“We have done everything that we can do as local leaders and health officials,” said Dr. Cody, who led the effort in March to put in place the country’s first shelter-in-place order. “We have worked as hard as we can work. We have tried everything that we know how to do. But without bold action at the state or federal level we are not going to be able to slow this down. We are not an island.”
Beyond California, hospitals have been scrambling in recent weeks to handle a new rush of patients, particularly in parts of the Sun Belt and New England that had largely avoided coronavirus spikes in the spring and summer.
In Rhode Island, where infections have rapidly increased in recent weeks, a field hospital opened on Monday in the state’s second-largest city, Cranston. At a cost of $8 million, a former call center for Citizens Bank was converted into a 335-bed field hospital. In New Mexico, a vacant medical center in Albuquerque was being used for recovering coronavirus patients. “We are seeing the worst rates that we’ve seen since the pandemic hit,” Mayor Tim Keller said in a recent interview.