California's new virus message: 'Don't share your air'

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) - The California healthcare system is in a coronavirus crisis stemming from ill-advised Thanksgiving meetings. This was announced by top executives from the state's largest hospital systems on Tuesday when they made a "desperate appeal" to residents to avoid a Christmas rerun that they said would overwhelm the state's medical system.
Increasingly exhausted staff, many of whom were put on duty outside of their normal duties, are now caring for virus patients piled up in hallways and conference rooms, said officials at Kaiser Permanente, Dignity Health and Sutter Health, which together cover 15 million Californians.
The executive director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Hospital in Los Angeles, Dr. Elaine Batchlor said separately that patients got into the gift shop there and five tents outside the emergency room.
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The officials offered the Californians a so-called "prescription" to slow the spread of the virus. This marketing effort has been known as "Don't Split Your Air". The underlying message is to stay away from people in other households, which many didn't do on Thanksgiving.
"We just won't be able to keep up if the COVID surge continues to mount," said Greg Adams, chairman and CEO of Kaiser Permanente. "We're full or almost full everywhere."
The state reported 32,659 newly confirmed cases Tuesday and another 653 patients were hospitalized, one of the largest single-day hospital stays. A government data model predicts nearly 106,000 hospital stays per month if nothing changes. The current level is 17,843.
Officials blamed Thanksgiving broadcasts that they fear will repeat when people gather for Christmas and New Years and fail to take precautions, such as wearing masks, social distancing, staying at home as much as possible and not with others contact.
"We are really making a clear and desperate appeal to Californians not to repeat what happened on Thanksgiving," said Dr. Stephen Parodi, Deputy General Manager of the Permanente Medical Group. "Our hospital systems cannot afford to see another surge like the one we saw on Thanksgiving."
California Health Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly reiterated that the state's modeling shows that if the current surge continues, some hospitals and regions in the state will be overwhelmed in the coming weeks. But he said it wasn't a given.
"Let's make some decisions over the next 10 days that we will never regret because it will make our families, our loved ones, and our communities more intact," he said.
California enacted a new regional home stay ordinance in early December based on ICU capacity and closed or restricted capacity for a large number of businesses. Total state capacity or regular intensive care beds had dropped to 1.4% on Tuesday, and for another day it was 0% in all of southern California and the San Joaquin Valley, with 12 counties in the north. Many hospitals are now using the emergency power capacity.
"We don't have a place for anyone. We've been holding patients for days because we can't transfer them or get beds for them," said Dr. Alexis Lenz, emergency doctor at El Centro Regional Medical Center in Imperial County in the southeast corner of the The facility has set up a 50-bed tent in its parking lot and converted three operating rooms to virus care.
In Imperial County, 20% of people tested now come back positive, compared to the national average of about 13%.
Dr. Thomas Utecht, chief physician at Community Medical Centers in Fresno, San Joaquin Valley, shared how medical staff see sobbing families, desperate patients, and people dying in isolation wards every day while their loved ones watch TV.
“Every heartbreaking hour we try to save another patient with all we have. Sometimes it is enough. And sometimes it is not, "he wrote in a direct appeal to the residents of the state." It's up to you, you are the front line now. We can only do so much without your help. "
Associated press reporters John Antczak in Los Angeles, Elliot Spagat in San Diego and Janie Har in San Francisco contributed to this report.

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