A surge in coronavirus cases has spread across most of California — and Imperial County, among the hardest hit early in the pandemic, is no exception.

After seeing improvements over the late summer, the county’s positivity rate for COVID-19 cases has more than doubled in the past month, and its two hospitals are nearing caseloads not seen since July.

“We were hit hard and late the last time around,” said Tony Rouhotas Jr., the county’s top administrator. “This time we’re being hit with the rest of California.”

Why this matters

With a history of double-digit unemployment and poor health indicators, Imperial County was among the hardest hit in the state in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic. With cases surging, the rural region’s two hospitals are being put to the test again.

Officials reopened an emergency facility in the Imperial Valley College gym last week for coronavirus patients nearing discharge so hospital beds would be available for more severe cases. The facility opened in May but closed in August when coronavirus cases declined.

The state last week also set up a 50-bed tent in the parking lot of El Centro Regional Medical Center, the county’s largest hospital. Another 10 beds were placed in the auditorium of Pioneers Memorial Hospital.

Along with high rates of diabetes and asthma, the county of roughly 181,000 also suffers from high poverty and an unemployment rate last month of nearly 19% — the worst in California.

County leaders said they’ve anticipated the latest wave of cases and are focused on being better prepared this time around. They have requested additional testing resources and may begin mobile testing of farmworkers. 

As of Tuesday, the county had the fourth highest hospitalization rate in the state, with 28 of every 100,000 residents being treated for coronavirus. There are fewer than 300 permanent beds between its two hospitals and just four ICU beds were available Wednesday.

Earlier this year, the county’s hospital system was so overwhelmed that officials ultimately transferred hundreds of COVID-19 patients elsewhere, including San Diego County. 

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San Diego County is now seeing its own uptick in cases. The Union-Tribune reported Monday that local hospitals posted the largest weekly total of coronavirus-related admissions so far, but appear to be able to handle the increase. San Diego’s hospitalization rate is lower than Imperial County’s, with about 14 of every 100,000 residents being treated for COVID-19 as of Tuesday.

Scripps Health told the Union-Tribune this week that it recently accepted some transfers from Riverside and Imperial counties to help balance their workloads.

A temporary care facility is set up to treat patients in Imperial Valley College’s gymnasium. Imperial County officials were using the site over the summer to clear hospital beds for more severe cases during the coronavirus pandemic, but shut it down in August due to lower patient numbers. After seeing a surge in cases, leaders reopened the site last week.

But Imperial County hospital officials said they don’t expect major patient transfers like what happened earlier this year. This time they have the community college facility open early and have expanded capacity at the hospitals.

“We are very well prepared for the second wave because of the first wave and the lessons we learned from it,” said Adolphe Edward, CEO of El Centro Regional Medical Center.

Like most of California, Imperial County remains in the purple tier, the most restrictive stage in the state’s system meant to control the spread of the virus. It has a 15.6% seven-day positivity rate, compared to 6.2% statewide.

Roughly 15,700 of the county’s residents have tested positive since the pandemic began. While more than 13,900 people have recovered, 356 have died. 

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Hispanics and Latinos make up 85% of the county’s population, and they account for 92% of the coronavirus deaths. U.S.-Mexico border crossings are a way of life in the region, and much of the local economy is driven by agriculture.

Dr. Stephen Munday, the county’s health officer, called the recent virus numbers “very concerning” and urged residents to take precautions.

“I can’t stress this enough as we approach the Thanksgiving holiday,” Munday said in a news release. “The actions that everyone takes during this time can literally mean the difference between life and death for our families, friends, and neighbors.”

Type of Content

News: Based on facts, either observed and verified directly by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Jennifer Bowman is an investigative reporter at inewsource, covering Imperial County and the South Bay. She used to cover education for inewsource. She’s happy to be back in her hometown after stints at daily newspapers in Michigan and North Carolina. At the Asheville Citizen Times,...