California prepares for COVID-19 fatalities with order of 5,000 body bags, refrigerator units on standby

Coronavirus

California is bracing for the possibility of a surge in COVID-19 deaths that could overwhelm hospitals and morgues, Gov. Gavin Newsom said Tuesday.

The state ordered 5,000 additional body bags that are being distributed to Los Angeles, San Diego and Inyo counties. And dozens of 53-foot refrigerator storage units are currently on standby throughout the state, Newsom said in a livestreamed news briefing.

“That should be sobering,” the governor said. “I don’t want people to scare folks. But this is a deadly disease. And we need to be mindful of where we are in this current journey together to the vaccine. We are not at the finish line yet.”

The state is also activating its coroner mutual aid and mass fatality program, which Newsom said will allow for better coordination between hospitals and morgues.

The precautions come from hospitalizations that now are double the summertime peak and threaten to soon overwhelm the hospital system.

One day’s worth of cases can be expected to produce a staggering 3,900 hospitalizations and nearly 500 ICU patients.

“We are in the middle of the most acute peak,” Newsom said, urging residents to take precautions.

As the vaccine rollout continued for its second day Tuesday, the state reported more than 32,300 new virus cases and 142 fatalities. Newsom said the number of average daily deaths has quadrupled from a month ago.

Meanwhile, there were 14,283 people hospitalized across the state Tuesday — a 68% increase in just two weeks.

The surge is forcing an urgent scramble for more staff and space, a crush that might not abate for two months despite the arrival of the first doses of vaccines this week.

It’s still unclear when vaccines will be widely available in California, and in the meantime the state is facing what Newsom called “perhaps the most intense and urgent moment since the beginning of this pandemic.”

In Orange County, health officials said mobile field hospitals would be rolled out to three hospitals that already need more space. The large, heavy-duty, temperature-controlled canvas tents with hard flooring add 125 beds.

The county of 3 million people has seen rising virus cases, hospital beds filling and emergency rooms stressed, said Dr. Clayton Chau, the county’s public health officer.

He pleaded with residents to avoid gathering with people from outside their households.

“I have never been so afraid of Christmas and New Year’s in my life like I am now,” Chau said. “I can’t imagine what it would be like after the holidays if people are not listening.”

The surge in cases throughout much of California is forcing a scramble for staff and space, a crush that Newsom and the state’s top health official said might not abate for two months despite the first vaccine doses arriving this week.

The surge already has prompted an easing of normal nurse-to-patient ICU ratios and quarantine standards for health care workers, and the opening of more alternative care facilities. State officials are reaching out to the Department of Defense and overseas staffing services for desperately needed medical workers.

The California Nurses Association denounced reducing the ICU nursing care ratio, saying in a statement that it “will inevitably lead to more patient, nurse, and other health care worker infections and deaths.”

Newsom said it is part of “a very dynamic effort” to get more staffing, particularly in intensive care units.

“Let’s deal with some sober realities,” Newsom said, recounting that he’s talked with his wife about the state beginning to coordinate aid among coroners. He said he felt an obligation to publicly share details of bringing in body bags and refrigerated trailers.

Newsom announced a shutdown order nearly two weeks ago based on ICU capacity. Nearly the entire state is under the most severe restrictions.

California has deployed 507 extra staff around the state, though most don’t have the skills to help in ICUs. The state is seeking 3,000 contracted medical staff.

“Two weeks from now we are concerned about what our ability to provide the same level of high-quality care will be,” said Dr. Mark Ghaly, California’s secretary of health and human services. He said hospitals have been planning for the worst, including updating what are called “crisis care guidelines” in case they must start triaging which patients get what level of treatment.

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