Natividad photo

The Natividad ER.

No region in the country has enough hospital beds to treat seriously ill COVID-19 patients if there’s a surge in cases as happened abroad, but Monterey County has even far less room than the most. 

An analysis by the Monterey County Weekly shows that there could be almost nine patients with severe symptoms for every existing hospital bed in the area. The national average is six patients per bed. The region, encompassing the Monterey Peninsula and the entire Salinas Valley, ranks 337th out of nearly 450 metropolitan regions across the country in bed capacity.

The analysis is based on data collected by USA Today from the American Hospital Association, U.S. Census, CDC and World Health Organization. The newspaper published a national-level story and then made its data available for use by local news outlets. 

The four local hospitals—Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula, Natividad, Salinas Valley Memorial and Mee Memorial—serve a population of about 433,000 people. They have 740 hospital beds among the four of them.

Those beds, however, are not all empty. If only two-thirds of them are available, which is typical at any given time, the lack of beds would be far more dire: for every available bed, there could be nearly 26 patients.

“We do have a bed prioritization plan in place so we get the sickest people into the beds they need,” Martha Blum, an infectious disease specialist at CHOMP, tells the Weekly. She says there is no specific number of intensive care unit beds, for example, because there are plans in place to shift beds and rooms to accommodate more severely ill patients

Representatives of the four hospitals in the county have been regularly meeting over recent weeks to assess bed and equipment supplies. They can send patients to other facilities and shift equipment as necessary. Putting other non-hospital facilities into service for caring for patients is also a possibility, Blum says. Many healthcare providers are considering postponing elective and non-urgent procedures. 

In the data, the assumption is that 32,054 people will become infected in Monterey County. The number is derived from an infection rate of 7.4 percent, based on the rate of a mild flu season. There is not enough research yet to establish an actual infection rate and some public health officials believe it is much higher than the flu. 

Experience from other countries suggests that the majority of those infected will experience only mild symptoms. But a number of them will go on to suffer severe and even critical symptoms requiring hospitalization. The analysis assumes, based on the mild flu, that 13.8 percent of infected patients will have severe symptoms and 6.1 percent will suffer from critical symptoms. That translates to 4,424 severe cases and 1,955 critical cases in Monterey County.

These two categories come from the World Health Organization, which defines symptoms as severe when patients have shortness of breath, low blood oxygen, acute respiratory distress, and fluid buildup in their lungs. Critical cases respiratory failure, septic shock or multiple organ failure.

The ability of the four local hospitals to care for the thousands who could become seriously ill depends on how quickly the virus spreads. If they trickle over an extended period, the hospitals will likely have enough space and equipment to the patients. But if there’s a sudden surge, the facilities and staff will be overwhelmed. 

Asaf Shalev is a staff writer at the Monterey County Weekly. He covers the environment, agriculture and K-12 education, as well as Seaside, Marina, Sand City, Big Sur and Carmel Valley.

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