CHULA VISTA, Calif. — Even as most California hospitals have avoided an incapacitating surge in coronavirus patients, some facilities near the Mexican border have been overwhelmed. They include El Centro Regional Medical Center in Imperial County and Scripps Mercy Hospital Chula Vista in San Diego County, which link the spike in COVID-19 patients to their communities’ cross-border lifestyle.
Some U.S. citizens and legal residents who live in Mexico are crossing the border from Tijuana and Mexicali into the U.S. for treatment. Dr. Juan Tovar, an emergency physician and chief operations executive for Scripps Mercy Hospital Chula Vista, said 48% of COVID-positive patients who visited the emergency room between May 24 and May 30 said they had recently traveled to Mexico. That figure jumped to 60% between May 31 and June 2. The hospital is about 10 miles from the San Ysidro Port of Entry, the busiest land border crossing in the Western Hemisphere.
Only about 5% of COVID-19 patients reported they’d recently been to Mexico at Scripps’ three other emergency rooms farther north, he said.
“We are now transferring COVID-19 patients out of Chula Vista to other Scripps hospitals farther north on a fairly regular basis — 21 over the last week — to help decompress our hospital here,” Tovar said.
About two hours east, El Centro Regional Medical Center was so overwhelmed by COVID-19 patients it had to divert some to health care facilities in San Diego, National City and elsewhere. There have been more than 2,025 confirmed cases in Imperial County, which has the highest COVID-19 hospitalization rate in the state, said Andrea Bowers, special projects coordinator for the county health department.
“We know that our community has family on both sides of the border, so we’re relating the uptick to Mother’s Day weekend,” said Suzanne Martinez, assistant chief nursing officer at the medical center. “That means more risk as people travel back and forth over the border.”
KHN’s Heidi de Marco visited the intensive care units at both hospitals and documented the efforts to keep patients alive.
Patients suspected of having COVID-19 are screened inside a makeshift triage center outside El Centro Regional Medical Center in El Centro, California. The hospital is trying to keep patients who do not require acute care out of the hospital to limit spread.
A health care worker prepares to treat a COVID-19 patient on the medical-surgical floor. On May 28, the hospital had 41 coronavirus patients.
A registered nurse wearing protective equipment treats a COVID-19 patient in the intensive care unit. Ten beds in the hospital’s 12-bed ICU were filled with coronavirus patients.
Health care workers must wear a special respirator, a gown and gloves before entering a COVID-19 patient’s room.
Hospital staff members tending to COVID-19 patients must put on full-body protective suits to enter an isolation room in the emergency department.
About two hours to the west, Scripps Mercy Hospital Chula Vista has had roughly 35 to 40 COVID-19 patients every day in recent weeks, says Dr. Juan Tovar, an emergency physician and chief operations executive. That’s quadruple the number of coronavirus patients the hospital was treating at the beginning of April.
ICU staffers sometimes communicate with one another through the windows using a whiteboard.
Registered nurse Christina Campolongo (left), certified nursing assistant Vanessa Aquino and registered nurse Paloma Garza-Johnson turn a sedated coronavirus patient into the prone position, face down, which may allow more oxygen into the patient’s lungs.
Ochigbo administers the sacrament of healing. The Anointing of the Sick is given to seriously ill and dying people. Ochigbo has modified it for COVID-19 patients, applying oil only to the forehead and feet.