San Diego could run out of hospital beds. Universities may offer up their dorms.
UC San Diego's campus is shown in this undated aerial photo.(Courtesy of UCSD)

San Diego could run out of hospital beds. Universities may offer up their dorms.

The University of California San Diego and other public colleges across the state may open their campus housing to hospital patients as the coronavirus pandemic tests the capacity of the healthcare system.

San Diego County Supervisor Nathan Fletcher said officials are working with UCSD to possibly create an “alternate care setting” in an empty dormitory at the La Jolla campus. The facility would be staffed with doctors and nurses, he said.

San Diego County has more than 7,000 hospital beds, and typically half of them are occupied. As county healthcare officials prepare for a surge in COVID-19 cases, their own model projects local hospitals could run out of beds by mid-April.

“This would be for individuals presently in the hospital who are too sick to go home but don’t need to stay in the hospital,” Fletcher said at a Friday news conference. “If we can create new rooms, we can transfer those folks there, which is freeing up an existing room.”

Other universities may assist, too. Gov. Gavin Newsom has said he’s working with leaders of the UC and California State University systems to “identify appropriate dormitories” to help with a looming hospital bed shortage.

San Diego State University has not disclosed any plans. In a campus-wide email last week, the school said officials “will communicate should a decision related to any SDSU facility occur.”


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There are roughly 7,000 hospital beds in the county. A model that county health officials are using projects that local hospitals could exceed their capacity as early as mid-April. If citizens follow social distancing guidelines and stay home, the county may not run out of beds until mid-May.

Andrew Gordon, a spokesman with the UC system, told inewsource that officials have begun to inventory available space “and determine the feasibility of repurposing some housing facilities for temporary emergency use.” Students who remain on campus will not be commingled with those being sheltered temporarily, he said.

“These are trying times for our students and all Californians, and UC is well positioned to do its part to help the State through our patient care and cutting-edge research, and potentially through the temporary repurposing of space,” Gordon said in an email. “As we navigate this period of crisis and uncertainty, health and safety are our highest priorities and we will continue to do everything we can to respond with compassion and care.”

Neither county nor UCSD officials have named which dorm would be used for the alternate care center. Roughly 4,200 students live in the university’s residence halls and about 7,300 stay in apartment-style housing.

Universities across the state largely sit empty after classes were shifted online and students moved out of campus housing. UCSD, which urged students to move out of campus residences two weeks ago, said in a notice Tuesday that “a considerable number of undergraduate students” already have canceled their housing contracts.

A university spokeswoman said some students still are living on campus in “isolation housing.” She declined to share additional information “due to student privacy concerns.”

SDSU had more than 6,000 students living on campus before the pandemic. About 200 students were allowed to remain in campus housing after the university shifted to online classes.

San Diego State University's campus is shown on March 27, 2020.(Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

Toni Molle, a CSU system spokeswoman, told inewsource that its campuses are evaluating the availability of space, “and we continue to be engaged with the governor’s office on the issue.” No additional details are available, she said.

In a March 18 letter to President Donald Trump, Newsom said state officials project roughly 56% of California’s population — or 25.5 million people — will contract COVID-19 within an eight-week period.

Dr. Nick Yphantides, the county’s chief medical officer, said Monday that San Diego is “probably nowhere near” the peak in its COVID-19 cases.

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The county’s model, which assumes 20% of the region’s cases would require hospitalization, doesn’t take into account additional beds available at San Diego’s federal medical centers. It also doesn’t consider efforts by hospitals to cancel elective surgeries and increase capacity, which in California could help increase capacity by about 40%, said Dr. Eric McDonald, the county’s medical director of epidemiology and immunization services.

But the model also doesn’t consider any possible surges in local cases and assumes all hospital beds are available for COVID-19 patients, McDonald said. The county’s historical bed occupancy is 50%, he said.

McDonald said the model shows staying at home and social distancing can “buy time” as officials work to add beds.

“We need to keep with it,” he said.

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About Jennifer Bowman:

Jennifer Bowman
Jennifer Bowman is an investigative reporter at inewsource. To contact her with tips, suggestions or corrections, please email jenniferbowman [at] inewsource [dot] org.