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An El Centro Regional Medical Center staff member emerges from one of the tents set up outside the Emergency Department on Dec. 1. The tents were put back up in late November to handle the increase that had been occurring in COVID-related hospitalizations at that point. Now the present surge and strain on ECRMC's resources are expected to continue through the end of February. | MARCIE LANDEROS PHOTO

‘Hellfire’ at Hospitals; Surge Through End of February

COVID-related Imperial County Health Orders Pending

EL CENTRO — Like much of the state and nation, Imperial County is experiencing a steep increase in its COVID-19 case rate, and its resulting in a wave of “absenteeism” and was likened to “hellfire” in its effect on hospitals.

Between Dec. 22 and 28, the county reported a cumulative total of 802 cases, a county public health official said.

“That’s been the highest seven-day total that we’ve had in many months in 2021,” county Public Health Director Janette Angulo said on Thursday afternoon, Jan. 6. She noted that the case rate excludes individuals in custody in the local state prisons.

As of Thursday, a total of 35,997 positive cases have been reported locally and there were 1,364 active cases. The case rate per 100,000 population stood at 58.4, significantly lower than the state’s average of about 100.7 per 100,000, but still an increase from prior months, Angulo said.

“We are below (the state) but it’s still very high transmission and the highest transmission in many weeks now,” she said.

On Jan. 6, the county also reported its first case of the omicron variant.

Hospitals “Strained” and Absenteeism Seen

Even in the prior absence of the identified omicron variant, local COVID-related trends and hospitalizations resembled nothing less than “hellfire” in the estimation of El Centro Regional Medical Center Chief Medical Officer Dr. Christian Tomaszewski.

“It’s rampant,” Tomaszewski said during a 10-minute Facebook livestream on Thursday morning that ECRMC hosted.

Tomaszewski indicated that positive cases are likely to keep increasing until late February, as well. Prior estimations had the present COVID surge peaking in mid-January, according to ECRMC Chief Executive Officer Dr. Adolphe Edward.

Tomaszewski was joined on the livestream by Edward, who struck a similar tone in describing the status of COVID-19 in the county.

Of particular concern for him was the recent 58 percent increase in positive cases for adults and the 106 percent increase in juveniles.

“This is getting to be serious again,” Edward said. “For those who think COVID is over, it is not.”

Locally, a total of 29 individuals were being treated for COVID-19 in the intensive-care units of both ECRMC and Pioneers Memorial Hospital, Public Health Director Angulo said. All told, some 64 people were hospitalized in the Valley with the coronavirus, she said.

About 25 percent of those patients had been vaccinated, Edward said, adding that those individuals were high-risk patients with other underlying health issues.

EL Centro Regional Medical Center’s Dr. Adolphe Edward (left) and Dr. Christian Tomaszewski discuss COVID during a Facebook Live session on Thursday morning, Jan. 6. | VIDEO CAPTURE

The effect of COVID on hospital staff is just as serious, Edward said.

Citing an NBC News story that morning in which a total of 1,840 employees were reported exposed or infected between University of California San Diego Health System, Scripps Health System and Sharp Healthcare, Edward said some 30 ECRMC staffers were out with COVID.

“Every industry right now is straining over absenteeism because of omicron, and what we’re doing is ensuring our own staff stay healthy,” Tomaszewski said, adding hospital staff is wearing N-95 and KN-95 masks at all times and being encouraged to get vaccinated and get the booster.

Tomaszewski stressed that most of the cases of COVID affecting ECRMC staff are not being contracted in the hospital but outside the hospital.

“That’s why please do whatever you can to prevent the spread. Stay in your bubble for now. We’re strained. All of our medical resources are strained in this country right now,” he said.

An increase in absenteeism, both in students and staff, is being attributed to COVID at school districts throughout Imperial County.

New Treatments Available for Highest Risk

On the treatment end for the public and patients, some local health providers such as the hospitals have been provided monoclonal antibody treatment for high-risk patients that may help may block the virus that causes COVID-19 from attaching to human cells.

Tomaszewski indicated that there are also some newer treatments besides monoclonal antibodies available in very limited amounts and have yet to be made widely available in San Diego. Locally, it is being reserved exclusively for high-risk patients.

Public health officials also are continuing to implore the public to follow previously established COVID-related health and safety guidelines, as well as getting vaccinated and booster shots, to help stem the spread of the coronavirus. Doing so will help local health providers better assist the public during the pandemic and the accompanying surges in case rates.

“I do not want to see you on the other end of the intubation tube,” Tomaszewski said.

New Local Health Orders Due

New health orders from Imperial County Public Health Officer Dr. Stephen Munday were set to roll out as soon as Friday, Jan. 7 in alignment with new state and federal COVID-19 guidelines.

The new health orders will come amid an increase in the county, state and nation’s positivity rates and reflect public health officials’ concerns about the increased transmissibility of the omicron variant, which has been identified in the county.

The local health orders will alter the amount of time that COVID-positive individuals and those who may have been exposed should spend in isolation and quarantine, respectively, as well as shorten the time between when some individuals receive their second COVID-19 vaccine and a booster.

“Those orders should be out in the next day or so,” said Public Health Director Angulo on Thursday afternoon. “We will be aligning with the state.”

Imperial County Public Health Department Director Janette Angulo updates the Board of Supervisors during a Dec. 7 meeting on the variety of programs the Public Health Department has offered throughout the pandemic. | MARCIE LANDEROS PHOTO

The new health order regarding isolation will recommend that persons who test positive isolate for five days, regardless of their vaccination status, or whether they had previously contracted the coronavirus or are asymptomatic.    

Isolation can end after the fifth day if symptoms are not present or have decreased and a diagnostic test collected on day five or later tests negative, according to the California Department of Public Health’s website.

Similarly, unvaccinated persons or those who are fully vaccinated but have yet to receive their booster are recommended to quarantine for five days after their last contact with a COVID-positive individual.

Quarantine can end after the fifth day if symptoms are not present or have decreased and a diagnostic test collected on day five or later tests negative, CDPH announced on Thursday, Jan. 6.

Those who have received their booster shots or are fully vaccinated but not yet booster-eligible, can avoid quarantine but are recommended to get tested five days after their last contact with a COVID-positive individual, the CDPH stated.  

It is further recommended that persons that are unable to test or choose not to test after five days of either isolation or quarantine, and symptoms are not present, can end their respective isolation or quarantine after day 10.

Isolation refers to the separation of those infected with a contagious disease from people who are not infected, while quarantine restricts the movement of those who were exposed to a contagious disease in case they become infected.

The county’s previous health order regarding quarantine recommended a 10-day quarantine for unvaccinated persons.  

The county’s other scheduled health order will advise the public that persons who have been fully vaccinated with the Pfizer vaccine can now wait just five months before becoming eligible for a booster shot, instead of six months, Angulo said.

Richard Montenegro Brown contributed information to this story.

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