El Centro Regional Medical Center is shown in this undated photo. (Courtesy El Centro Regional Medical Center)

Imperial County’s two hospitals are no longer accepting additional COVID-19 patients after seeing a rise in cases from U.S. citizens living in Mexico.

Why this matters

Imperial County has fewer than 300 hospital beds and long-standing community health challenges. Despite those challenges, county officials are working to protect the region’s 181,000 residents as the coronavirus pandemic worsens.

Adolphe Edward, CEO of the El Centro Regional Medical Center, announced Tuesday morning on Facebook Live that the county’s emergency rooms are on “divert” status — meaning ambulances have been instructed to take patients elsewhere if they have the coronavirus. Emergency rooms at the El Centro hospital and Pioneers Memorial Hospital in Brawley remain open for walk-ins and patients with illnesses other than the virus, he said.

Scripps Health in San Diego had already received at least five patients from Imperial Valley and more were expected, a spokesperson told inewsource Tuesday afternoon.

Edward said the number of cases “skyrocketed” overnight, with hospital officials attributing the rise to U.S. citizens coming from Baja California, including Mexicali and the beach town of San Felipe. Hospitals there are at or near capacity, and some are unable to receive new patients.

“We want to make sure we don’t overwhelm either one of the hospitals and overwhelm the system with COVID patients to the point that we can’t take care of you,” Edward said on the Facebook video.

The decision comes as the county of 181,000 residents continues to see a rise in its number of coronavirus cases. As of Tuesday, 902 residents have tested positive, 18 have died and 394 have recovered. More than 6,300 have been tested.

A county stay-at-home order remains in effect, and residents must wear face coverings in public and practice social distancing. Officials have moved forward with gradually reopening the county, including allowing retail stores to open for curbside pickup and permitting some outdoor activities such as golfing.

The county has by far the highest hospitalization rate in the state for COVID-19. About 40 out of every 100,000 residents were hospitalized with the virus this week. That’s compared to second-highest Los Angeles County, which reported about 15 out of every 100,000 residents were hospitalized.

A hospital hallway in El Centro Regional Medical Center is shown in this undated photo. (Courtesy El Centro Regional Medical Center)

Officials said that as of Tuesday the El Centro hospital had at least 65 COVID-19 patients, up from 51 the day prior. All of the 14 new patients are U.S. citizens who live in Mexico. Pioneers Memorial had 28 COVID-19 patients.

The county has fewer than 300 hospital beds, according to a 2017 report. Dr. Stephen Munday, the county’s health officer, said at a news conference last week that officials have requested a federal medical station.

Both hospitals have existing partnerships in San Diego: El Centro is affiliated with the UC San Diego Health System, and Pioneers is part of Scripps Health. A UCSD spokesperson said it’s prepared to accept transfer patients from Imperial County.

Dimitrios Alexiou, head of the Hospital Association of San Diego and Imperial Counties, said San Diego’s hospital capacity “on the whole is doing pretty well.” But officials have seen increases in South County, where the proximity to Tijuana is a factor.

“I don’t think anybody is comfortable with where we’re at yet from the hospital side, I think there’s still a lot of uncertainty,” Alexiou said.

“And as things continue to play out — because I don’t think we’re out of the woods yet on the situation in Baja California — people are going to continue to keep an eye on the border, keep an eye on Imperial County,” he said. “Because as those areas flare up, there’s a spillover where we do feel those impacts.”

Hospitals diverting patients elsewhere isn’t a light decision, he added.

“They make decisions, but those aren’t decisions in a vacuum,” Alexiou said. “Those are also in concert with (emergency medical services). So, I guarantee they had and will continue to have conversations with Imperial County EMS.”

Update: 6:55 p.m., May 19, 2020
This story has been updated with additional details about Imperial County’s decision to begin diverting COVID-19 patients to other hospitals, including in San Diego.


Jennifer Bowman serves as inewsource's Assistant Editor. Before that, she was an investigative reporter focusing on government accountability issues in southern San Diego and Imperial counties. She also used to cover education. She’s happy to be back in her hometown after stints at daily newspapers...