Cavalry arrives at Kaweah Delta as hospital reaches capacity

Kaweah Delta experiences a surge in ICU cases from 35- to 49-year-olds, accepts help from military medical teams as about 70 skilled staff contract COVID-19

VISALIA – Kaweah Delta continues to break their record of most COVID-19 patients treated at one time. Two weeks ago it was 63, now it is up by 20.

“These are serious times right now. It is clearly much different than March and April where we were sitting on the edge of our seat holding our breath,” Gary Herbst, Kaweah Delta’s chief executive officer, said. “I wouldn’t say that we are experiencing what New York and New Jersey experienced, but it is getting increasingly more serious.”

As of Friday, July 24, of the 83 patients in the hospital, 43 were in critical care either in the hospital’s Intensive Care Unit or in its step down ICU, and 15 of COVID-19 patients were on ventilators. Of its 330 physical beds available for adults – excluding maternal child health, which includes labor and delivery, mother-baby, neonatal intensive care unit, pediatrics, etc. – 302 of those beds were occupied, 81 by COVID-19 positive patients, which left 28 physical beds open for adult patients. However, the challenge, for Kaweah Delta is staffing those beds, Herbst said.

“We could probably only staff a handful of those beds,” he said, noting that with 80 employees in quarantine and a number of others on leave, Kaweah Delta is experiencing staffing challenges as many others are across the state.

The Visalia hospital continues to work on staffing solutions, which include incentivizing clinical staff to work additional shifts and hiring additional clinical staff, along with student nurse interns. Kaweah Delta is also training all registered nurses on staff with a license so that when needed, they are prepared to serve at the bedside. 

“We are pulling a lot of our non-bedside nurses and onboarding them back to their bedside skills. We’re teaching medical-surgical nurses how to take care of critical care patients,” Herbst said.

Herbst provided the age range breakdown of COVID-19 patients, highlighting the fact that the largest cohort of inpatients was in the 35-49 age range. On July 24, the age breakdown of COVID-19 positive inpatients was as follows:

Age Range Inpatients
5-17 1
18-34 6
35-49 19
50-59 10
60-64 7
65-69 13
70-74 17
75-79 4
80 and over 6

Herbst also shared the fact that of those COVID-19 positive patients who have died at Kaweah Delta since the inception of the pandemic, all had an underlying health condition – diabetes, obesity, chronic heart failure, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, renal disease, etc.

“We have one of the highest diabetes populations in the entire state. We use more insulin per capita in Tulare County than anywhere in the U.S.,” he said. “We have a high percentage of diabetes and it seems to be one of the leading co-morbidities of those who are being hospitalized and dying of COVID, so I do want people with diabetes to be extra cautious.”

While testing numbers continue to go up in Tulare County, which is a good thing, Herbst is asking the community not to come to Kaweah Delta’s Emergency Department seeking a COVID-19 test. Herbst simply said in a press release sent out last Friday that “unfortunately, we are not going to test you. There are many other ways to get tested.”

The recent surge in cases comes on the heels of the U.S. Department of Defense 20 person military team coming to town. Last week Kaweah Delta accepted the help, most from Travis Air Force Base, to assist with caring for COVID-19 patients.

“The team is part of 190 military health care workers that are being deployed through the state’s emergency management system to hospitals throughout the state that are caring for large numbers of COVID-19 patients,” a Kaweah Delta press release stated.

“Kaweah Delta accepted the DOD’s offer to assist with patients due to staffing challenges as a result of approximately 70 staff members quarantined. These are primarily registered nurses, licensed vocational nurses, and certified nurse assistants,” Herbst said in response to a question during a virtual townhall.

This military team, comprised of three critical care physicians, 13 critical care registered nurses, two respiratory therapists, and two advanced practice providers, will be deployed to Kaweah Delta’s 21-bed intensive care unit. The assignment there will be to care for 6 to 8 patients under the direction of Kaweah Delta’s clinical leadership team. Kaweah Delta expects the military team to be assigned to the Medical Center for the next 30 days, while there may be an option to extend their stay for another 30 days.

“It’s kind of sending in the cavalry, so to speak, with respect to being able to provide us with some much needed additional staffing,” Herbst said, noting that the hospital is running at 91 percent occupancy. “We have the ability to move patients around and we could probably create additional capacity to care for COVID-19 patients, but the challenge is being able to staff those beds.”

To date, approximately 200 Kaweah Delta staff have contracted the virus. Many have recovered.

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