Although nothing near the levels seen in late June and early July, the Imperial Valley is experiencing a second, and possibly a third surge of serious cases of novel coronavirus, according to health officials.
Those hospitalized in the Valley with COVID-19 as of Oct. 20 was the highest number seen in more than two months, according to county data for both general admissions and in the intensive-care units.
“The second wave is already here. You might want to even call it the third wave, and when I say here, I don’t specifically mean Imperial County, but if you look at what’s happening … Europe is a bit ahead of us and they are struggling right now. And if you look at what’s going on across the United States, we’re already seeing many, many, many locations that have increasing cases,” Imperial County Public Health Officer, Dr. Stephen Munday, told the county Board of Supervisors on Oct. 20 during his weekly COVID-19 update.
Earlier in the week, Oct. 19, El Centro Regional Medical Center Chief Executive Officer Adolphe Edward returned to Facebook Live after a several-week absence to address the rising number of COVID cases coming into the El Centro hospital.
COVID-positive cases at ECRMC peaked that morning at 32 patients, down to 31 by the time Edward took to Facebook. He said 18 of the patients were on ventilators.
“That’s a very fast rapid increase, but we were anticipating that we were going to see a rise in the numbers,” he said.
Edward explained ECRMC is experiencing a second wave and “maybe a third one, as (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director) Dr. (Anthony) Fauci said and many others (have said). It is here now.”
The numbers of COVID patients at Pioneers Memorial Hospital aren’t quite as dramatic, but Dr. George Fareed, a hospitalist at PMH and director of the Pioneers Health Center, said on Oct. 19 that “we are in a second wave,” and he is seeing increased numbers in both the inpatient and outpatient settings.
Fareed, who attended to patients admitted to the hospital over the weekend (Oct. 17 and 18), said he saw several that were in serious condition, and there has been an “uptick in cases in the very serious ones,” he said, or those who are COVID-positive and have had pneumonia set into their lungs.
Between the two hospitals, there were a total of 41 COVID-positive patients admitted and 15 COVID patients in ICU as of Oct. 20, both are the highest totals since Aug. 12, according to the Imperial County COVID-19 Surveillance Dashboard on the county Public Health Department website.
The most current available census data for ECRMC as of deadline Oct. 21 was from Oct. 20, with 85 patients admitted to the hospital and 31 of them COVID positive.
Pioneers had nine COVID-positive patients admitted as of the morning of Oct. 21, five in ICU and five on ventilators.
The number of COVID patients at ECRMC has been on the rise for some weeks, hospital Chief Strategy Officer Cathy Kennerson said, and the hospital’s own data show the numbers have been in the 20s for much of October.
El Centro Regional is seeing most of the action, yet in spite of increased ICU numbers, Edward doesn’t anticipate there will be the need to expand the ICU beyond its current capacity of 30 beds.
As far as transfers out of the local hospitals, which was a major issue for the county at the height of the first wave in July, Edward said the hospital was experiencing nothing out of the ordinary as of Oct. 19. He added there have been about one to two transfers a week.
“We have a lot of capacity here in the hospital and in the Valley,” he said.
During Health Officer Munday’s presentation to the county board Oct. 20, his take on the rise in local cases came at the questioning of District 1 county Supervisor Jesus Escobar.
“This is not surprising,” Munday said of the rise in cases. “It’s now fall, respiratory virus season, so we were all concerned that this might happen, and we are starting to see it.
“California so far, we’ve been fortunate, and of course I’m hoping that it will stay that way. … There is still a lot of concern and work going on behind the scenes because we do understand that the season is here, and pretty soon we’re going to be worried about influenza and the other respiratory viruses as well. There certainly is a risk to our having increasing counts,” Munday added.
Imperial County was up to 336 deaths from COVID as of Oct. 21, with 12,610 total positive cases. Some 357 cases are considered active now and 11,917 are considered recovered, according to the dashboard.
Both positive cases of COVID and hospitalizations are up around the country in recent weeks, according to national media reports, and a weekend piece in the New York Times attributed this second (or third) wave in cases directly to “pandemic fatigue,” or the population tiring of wearing masks, staying home, and adhering to state and local health orders.
Locally, Edward believes the rise in cases is preventable.
“I don’t really know the details why the numbers are rising … (but) I think a lot of people have let their guard down,” he said, adding Imperial Valley residents can be seen either not wearing masks or wearing them incorrectly, such as under the nose, and people and places of business are not being as vigilant about sanitizing.
“It’s a mix of everything,” Edward said.
He intimated Oct. 19 that Halloween, with celebrations and children wanting to trick-or-treat door-to-door, might cause a further surge in cases.
Edward pointed to the county health department’s suggestions and guidelines for celebrating Halloween amid this pandemic.
Meanwhile, Dr. Fareed, who has been an outspoken advocate for early COVID treatment through the use of a hydroxychloroquine cocktail that has divided the medical community, thinks ECRMC has been hit harder with COVID patients because Pioneers has been more open to the controversial HCQ protocol in its outpatient clinic cases, thanks to Fareed.
Edward made a vague reference to the hospital only using treatment protocols in line with conventional practices and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control during the Facebook Live update Oct. 19. The statement seemed like a veiled reference to the HCQ protocol that Fareed, Dr. Brian Tyson, Dr. Tien Vo, Dr. Lorenzo Suarez, and several others in the Valley are still using in certain instances for early treatment of the illness.
More on HCQ: Dr. Brian Tyson in D.C.
Although mainstream social media and streaming content sites like Facebook and YouTube keep removing video of it, El Centro physician Dr. Brian Tyson joined a group of physicians — some with controversial points of view on a variety of COVID-related issues — who spoke about coronavirus on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 17.
Tyson, who is owner/director of All Valley Urgent Care Center, is an advocate of early treatment using the HCQ cocktail, which includes HCQ, an antibiotic and zinc, a treatment that has been shunned by many in the medical community on the advice of the CDC and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Yet it’s a treatment doctors like Tyson, Vo, and Fareed credit with saving thousands of lives locally by treating COVID early and preventing hospitalizations and what Fareed has described in past interviews as the often-deadly “cytokine storm.”
(That’s when the virus already has unleashed an autoimmune attack on the most vulnerable systems of the patient, such as the lungs or heart, causing those systems to shut down and lead to death.)
Tyson, who has operated All Valley Urgent Care for about two and a half years, has treated many COVID cases in the county.
“We took on the coronavirus head on. We saw over 20,000 patients in person. We treated this virus early. We treated this virus aggressively, and we only had one hospitalization and zero deaths,” Tyson said on the video from the Supreme Court. “Zero deaths, because we were not going to stand by and allow people to die without treatment.
“We were told to stop testing. We were told to stop prescribing. But we didn’t. We continue to treat today, and we’ve treated over 1,900 (COVID) positive patients,” he said. “We’ve treated patients from 11 months old to 90 years old.
“We’ve treated patients with pulse oximetry of less than 90, with chest X-rays that were filled with inflammation and fluid. We sent them home with treatment … and everyone of them has survived,” he said.
“I’m here to tell you, at the beginning of this, we were all afraid. But my staff and myself, after going through this. We’re no longer afraid,” Tyson said.
Elizabeth Varin contributed reporting to this story.