Surge attributable to COVID-19 among other factors
Santa Barbara County’s hospital bed availability dipped into the “red zone” this week, signalling that area hospitals are currently experiencing a surge in patients.
According to the county’s latest hospitalization data, 71.1% of hospital beds were in use on Friday, placing the metric within the “red zone.” The county’s staffed ICU beds were in the “red zone” as of Thursday with 85.5% of ICU beds in use, but that number dropped to 75% on Friday. The county is considered to have entered the “red zone” when less than 35% of hospital beds are available and less than 20% of staffed ICU beds are available.
This surge in hospitalizations, however, is not entirely attributable to an increase in COVID-19 cases alone, according to local health officials.
Dr. Lynn Fitzgibbons, the chair of the infectious disease division at Cottage Health, told the News-Press on Friday that while the hospitals are still admitting COVID-19 patients, the vast majority of patients currently hospitalized are there for “non-COVID related reasons”.
“Our experience at Cottage is that the hospital is very full, even without the COVID surge (of patients),” Dr. Fitzgibbons said. “At Cottage, we currently have about 13 patients admitted to the hospital (on Friday) with COVID, yet our hospital is very full because not only do we have those COVID patients, but we have the general needs of our community’s health right now and there are simply a lot of patients.”
On Friday, the county’s Public Health Department reported that a total of 72 out of 429 hospital beds in use were for COVID-19 patients, including 10 out of 76 staffed ICU beds.
At this point in time, local hospitals are seeing a surge in patients seeking medical care for an array of reasons, including joint replacements, elective surgeries and surgical procedures that had to be put off during the pandemic, Dr. Fitzgibbons said.
In addition, Cottage Hospitals are also seeing an increase in the number of patients seeking consultations for more advanced diseases, such as cancers and HIV, Dr. Fitzgibbons added. During the pandemic, many patients put off routine check-ups and screenings and that has resulted in more people being diagnosed at a more advanced or later stage and requiring care now, Dr. Fitzbibbons said.
Staffing shortages are another potential reason for high numbers on the dashboard, Dr. Fitzgibbons said, as the number of “staffed” ICU beds available corresponds with the number of medical professionals there to attend to them.
“When we’re looking at the dashboard and the number of available staffed beds, we have to remember that even if we have as many beds and rooms, we of course need staff to care for those patients, and those expert staff are unfortunately in short supply,” Dr. Fitzgibbons said.
The region is, however, seeing an uptick in COVID-19 cases, which has historically correlated with increased hospitalizations. With the hospital already feeling strained in the absence of a surge in COVID patients, Dr. Fitzgibbons said the hospital’s “biggest concern” right now is that the region could see an uptick in the number of severe cases in the coming weeks, which could coincide with an uptick in COVID-related hospitalizations.
While health officials are closely monitoring the potential for a COVID-related hospitalization surge, Dr. Fitzgibbons said it’s important to remember that this stage of the pandemic is very different from what the region has experienced before.
During the winter surge, cases and hospitalizations were very closely correlated. But during this recent surge, the hospitalization rate has not risen at the same rate as cases, according to data tracked by Cottage Hospital and presented by Dr. Fitzgibbons at a press conference last week.
This trend gives Dr. Fitzgibbons hope moving forward that the hospitalization rate may not spike as high as it did during the region’s devastating winter surge in January and February.
“We’re continuing to see a reassuring trend when comparing the number of recent cases with the number of admissions to Cottage Health,” Dr. Fitzgibbons said. “It’s definitely the case that more community cases results in more hospitalizations, but that relationship is different than it was during the winter surge, and even if our community cases were to reach comparable numbers ot the winter surge, we are hopeful that while hospitalization would be high, they may not reach the levels that we felt in January and February.”