At an emotional press conference Wednesday on the cusp of Christmas Eve, Santa Clara County health leaders begged the public to cancel their holiday travel and gathering plans to help prevent further skyrocketing COVID-19 cases.
The region's hospitals are in crisis mode due to the surging cases, with only 35 remaining intensive care unit beds throughout the county. Eight out of 10 hospitals have fewer than five available beds. Three hospitals have fewer than 10 beds of any kind left, said Dr. Ahmad Kamal, COVID-19 director of health care preparedness.
"As of today, there were 68 patients in the emergency room waiting for a hospital bed who did not have one," he said Wednesday.
Reports of people planning to travel for the holidays has alarmed county and health leaders as the number of new daily cases has topped 1,200 per day, they said. The skyrocketing number of hospitalizations since Thanksgiving when many people traveled and gathered outside of their households is straining the health care system. An increased number of cases after the holidays would tip the system into uncharted territory, they said.
"If we have a surge on top of a surge, we will definitely break. We cannot afford that," county Health Officer Dr. Sara Cody said.
All of the numbers are going the wrong way and the reality is grim, she added. Despite begging people not to travel, officials saw a steep rise in COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths after Thanksgiving. As of Dec. 23, 632 people have died from COVID-19 and 631 people are hospitalized with the virus in the county; nearly 60,000 people have tested positive, county Counsel James Williams said.
In mid-November, a week before Thanksgiving, an average of three people died per day due to COVID-19. A month later, that average increased to nearly six people per day. The county’s seven-day average positivity rate as of Dec. 13 was 7.7%, the highest since the pandemic began in March. That’s compared to 3.4% on Nov. 19, one week before Thanksgiving Day, and 1.3% on May 27, county officials said.
"I understand that this is a very hard message to hear. It is not the message that we want to be delivering on the eve of holidays where our tradition is to come together, and the message is even harder to do than to hear. But we cannot emphasize enough that this is a matter of life and death. So please, do not gather. Celebrate with just those in your household. If you have plans to travel, go home and cancel them. Cancel your travel plans. Celebrate over the phone, over social media, over Zoom. Cook a meal in your home and enjoy it with just the people in your home. It can save a life. It will save a life and it's very important to do," Cody said.
If the county sees another surge that looks anything like Thanksgiving "we are going to see a crisis," Williams said. COVID-19 is close to being the third largest cause of death in the county this year after cancer and heart disease.
Kamal begged people to cancel their travel plans and gatherings and to stay home. With hospital resources dwindling, there is a real risk that many sick patients will not have a bed in the hospital and many more could die.
"We are talking about people in gurneys without a bed to go to; we are talking about people not getting hospital care. We are talking about rationing what scarce resources our exhausted health system has left to those who will benefit the most. We are talking about people dying who should not have died. And when hospitals are at that point where they are rationing care, where they are having to turn away people who desperately need their services, it's no longer just about COVID, but everybody. It's about people in a car accident; it's about people with a heart attack. This will affect all of us," Kamal said.
Although the number of cases appears to be slightly softening a month after Thanksgiving, it's not enough to prevent disaster if people again travel and gather and spike the surge, county officials said.
"This is the time when we want to come together, when we need to come together, but we cannot come together in person. ... It's just not safe this year. One of the enormous, enormous challenges of COVID is that it's silent. You can't see it; your loved one doesn't look dangerous. And you can have chains of silent spread that end in someone being hospitalized or end in someone dying. But if we each do our part and we stay just within our household bubble, we can prevent people from dying and that is what we must do. That is the holiday gift that we must give each other," Cody said.
Watch the full press conference here:
Find comprehensive coverage on the Midpeninsula's response to the new coronavirus by Palo Alto Online, the Mountain View Voice and the Almanac here.