Action News Investigates: Will COVID-19 overwhelm Valley hospitals?

FRESNO, Calif. (KFSN) -- The Central Valley doesn't have the same sheer number of coronavirus cases as other parts of California, but public health officials say our peak is still weeks away.

And when it comes, they're worried about overwhelming the healthcare system, so Action News investigated how prepared our hospitals are and how they're hoping to adapt when the situation gets worse.

Coronavirus cases number in the dozens in the Central Valley as of Friday so doctors on the front lines say things are okay for the time being, but maybe not for long.

"We predict that there will be a large surge of patients and at the same time that will occur, we're probably going to start losing some of our health care providers who will get sick as well," said Dr. Lori Weichenthal, an emergency medicine doctor at UCSF Fresno.

She says most estimates show 30-40% of people who get COVID-19 will be healthcare providers, and when it comes to providers, the Valley is already in a more precarious situation than most of the state.

In all of California, there are 288 doctors per 100,000 people, according to the University of California Office of the President.

In the Central Valley, it's 157, with Merced County the lowest at 91.

State Senator Andreas Borgeas co-signed a letter to Gov. Newsom from Valley lawmakers to get him thinking about the imbalance.

"We wanted to make sure the governor knew that we need more medical attention and resources devoted to the Central Valley because of our unique set of circumstances," Borgeas said.

Those circumstances also include a possible shortage of hospital beds.

Fresno County has 1.8 per 1000 people, according to California Health and Human Services. Merced County has 0.8, well below the 2.8 average across the country and even the 3.2 in Italy, where the coronavirus peak overwhelmed hospitals.

The data shows that if just 1.1% of people in the Central Valley get infected, and the national average of 15% of them require hospitalization, we'll run out of beds.

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Finding space for a surge in patients, like the new deal to add hundreds of temporary beds at the Fresno Fairgrounds would be critical.

Dr. Weichenthal says doctors and nurses will rise to the occasion and work harder. Some retired doctors are already coming back to work.

And exactly how the virus will behave is still somewhat unpredictable.

"There's some hope that because our population is a little bit more spread out, a little but more rural than some of those areas, that we might not have as much of an issue, but we have to prepare for the worst," she said.

Senator Borgeas wants a liaison from the governor's office tracking the situation here so they can get recommendations to him quickly, including potentially moving patients out of the Valley, if necessary.

"We're all hopeful that this runs its course, especially as the warmer months come about, but we have to prepare as if it's not," he said. "To do otherwise I don't think we would be looking at the best interests of our community."

Public health officials say keeping our hands clean and staying at home when possible are absolute necessities as they try to break the chain of transmission and keep our healthcare system intact.

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