Santa Cruz County Health Officer Dr. Gail Newel
Santa Cruz County Health Officer Dr. Gail Newel
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
COVID 2021

With promise of COVID ‘overflow hospitals’ off table, county health officials turn to Plan B

Gail Newel warns of even darker days ahead as cases surge, hospitals fill, and promises of help from the state are withdrawn. The combination of three holidays in a row — Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas — is reason for concern, she warns.

Amid the record, but expected, surge in COVID-19 cases reported Monday, Santa Cruz County health officials were hit with one surprise: so-called overflow hospitals — health facilities to be provided by state government in the event county hospital beds fill up — might not open.

“The state is telling us that due to staffing shortages, it’s unlikely that they’ll be able to open up those overflow hospitals,” county Health Officer Gail Newel said Monday evening. “We were pretty much counting on, for example, Seton Medical Center, which is in South San Francisco. And at this point there’s no plan to staff those facilities because of staffing shortages.”

As a result, the county is now formulating a variety of other strategies in the event local hospitals are overwhelmed. Those include:

  • Setting up a coronavirus care facility at a local hotel for patients with less severe healthcare needs;
  • Transferring patients to other counties with hospital bed capacity; and
  • An assortment of home care options, such as sending patients home with pulse oximeters and compressed oxygen and making their doctors and nurses available remotely.

Newel warned that “we’ve never had such a steep epidemic curve,” as cases of COVID-19 and hospitalizations skyrocketed over the weekend.

COVID-19 related hospitalizations over the weekend were significantly higher than they had ever been in the past, with a high of 47 patients being treated compared to the high of 39 for this summer. This was almost exactly the maximum need projected by the county’s hospital capacity model, and is close to overwhelming the county’s healthcare system.

The county’s two hospitals, Dominican and Watsonville Community hospital, “only have a small amount of room in their ICUs,” Newel said, “but they do have some room.”

Though exact figures change frequently, the consensus is this room could be occupied soon. The current record-breaking surge in cases is mostly from infections contracted before Thanksgiving.

“It’s probably still Halloween,” Newel said of the current outbreak. It usually takes about two weeks after a “driving event,” like a holiday, for officials to see a spike in case numbers; two more weeks to see an increase in hospitalizations; and another two weeks before the death toll rises.

Holiday related gatherings — be it July 4th, Memorial Day or Labor Day — have been the source of many of the COVID surges in Santa Cruz County. But in between each of those holidays, there was time to recover.

“This time it’s three holidays back to back, very close together,” Newel said, referring to Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. “They’re just going to build on top of each other and impact the healthcare system.”