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Packages of hygiene supplies on beds at Palomar Medical Center in Escondido. The hospital is the site of a 202-bed Federal Medical Station, which is ready for use in case of a coronavirus surge. Photo by Tigist Layne
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Palomar Health sees dramatic surge in COVID-19 hospitalizations

ESCONDIDO – Palomar Health is one of the hundreds of health systems across California that are seeing a spike in hospitalizations due to a rising number of COVID-19 cases. The two hospitals, one in Escondido and one in Poway, are preparing their staff and supplies as numbers continue to rise.

San Diego County is under a three-week stay-at-home order as of late Sunday night due to a decrease in ICU beds across Southern California. The state order will be lifted after three weeks if the region’s ICU capacity rises to 15% or higher.

Palomar Health’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. Omar Khawaja said that countywide, hospitalizations were in the 200s, but that number is now up to the 700s range with about 30% of those patients going into the ICU.

Dr. Khawaja, who is responsible for Palomar Medical Center in Escondido and Palomar Medical Center Poway, told The Coast News that at both hospitals, the last spike was about 40 COVID-19 hospitalizations, but now that number is around 70, with about a quarter of those being in the ICU.

“We’ve been lucky not to see a huge hit to our ICUs or our ventilators, but we are seeing higher numbers than we’ve ever seen,” Dr. Khawaja said. “We saw a real spike correlated to just temperature change because people are staying indoors and in closer proximity to people. The Thanksgiving holiday will add a layer on top of that [which] we haven’t really seen yet. We might see those effects in the next week or two.”

Back in April, Palomar Medical Center in Escondido received a 202-bed FEMA field hospital, which still hasn’t been used. Dr. Khawaja said that it hasn’t been necessary yet, but the health systems have been in constant communication about how it would be used if needed.

Craig Sturak, Communications Officer for the County of San Diego Health & Human Services, told The Coast News that the field hospital stands ready to be activated if the county reaches a point where it is needed.

If the time does come, Dr. Khawaja said it will most likely be used for low acuity patients to offload some of the other health systems

Another concern that comes with increased hospitalizations is a higher demand for Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). A few months ago, hospitals nationwide faced severe shortages of PPE, but Dr. Khawaja says they are much more prepared this time around.

“In March and April, we were worried about running out. Now, we’re just trying to build a stockpile and have plenty of reserves. So, it’s a very different conversation than we were having in March. We’re in a much better place now in terms of PPE,” Dr. Khawaja said.

He said that during this time, it’s important for people to follow guidelines and physical distancing, but warned against social distancing.

“We are trying to emphasize physical distancing instead of social distancing… we are seeing that along with higher COVID numbers is also more isolation, so if you have someone that you know is isolating, do whatever you can – phone calls, Facetime, Zoom – just reach out to them and make sure they know there’s someone who cares for them and is interested in their well-being. It goes a long way,” Dr. Khawaja said.

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