Health department officials have been meeting with hospitals to discuss where they could increase the number of available beds. (Shutterstock)

As SF hospitals brace for patient surge, officials plan to open new 48-bed unit

San Francisco may open up 48 more beds at St. Francis Memorial Hospital to help meet the demands of a possible surge in coronavirus patients.

Dr. Susan Ehrlich, chief executive officer of the Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital, told the Health Commission at a meeting this week that she and Department of Public Health director Dr. Grant Colfax have been meeting with San Francisco hospital CEOs and their medical nursing and operational leaders to plan for a surge in coronavirus patients. Their focus is “on the supply and effective utilization of our adult care and critical care beds.”

She said discussions included where they could increase beds. They have found 48 vacant, unstaffed beds.

“We have identified a unit, a full med-surg unit and an old critical care unit at St. Francis that we could use for that purpose,” Ehrlich said. “The capacity of the med-surg unit is about 40 and the critical care unit is eight.”

She and other officials looked at the units Monday night “and now we are in the process of figuring out what it would cost to staff it,” Ehrlich said.

Dignity Health Medical Group, which runs St. Francis and St. Mary’s Medical Center, did not comment directly on the plan to add 48 beds, but confirmed Saturday they are “in close collaboration with the Department of Public Health and other nearby hospitals to coordinate surge plans.”

“In anticipation of potential surges, we have identified locations in each facility where we could care for infected patients to avoid exposure to the general patient population,” a Dignity Health Medical Group spokesperson said in a statement to the San Francisco Examiner. “This could involve creating barriers within a facility or standing up surge tents where we can triage patients outside of our facilities.”

City officials have yet disclosed how many more hospital beds they may need to handle projected cases of COVID-19 patients or those who are awaiting testing.

Infectious disease experts at University of California-San Francisco are modeling the spread of the respiratory virus in The City to predict the demand and bed need as health officials work to create a “joint surge plan.”

“We’ve asked them to try to model this question for us, how many beds we are going to need, of what type, at what period of time,” Ehrlich said.

She said it was “the big question in all of our minds.”

A spokesperson for UCSF said the modeling data was not finalized as of Friday.

Hospitals are also changing the way they do business, like postponing elective surgeries, to free up beds and staffing.

Ehrlich said that “every single hospital has really dramatically changed operations in order to plan ahead and meet the demand that we know will be coming.”

There is also a tracking system under development to keep a running daily count of how many COVID-19 patients there are and the services and beds they are using across all hospitals and health care systems.

Along with that is a color coding scheme to show how close hospitals are at reaching full capacity. The color scheme includes green, yellow, orange, red and maroon categories based on what percentage of the beds and services are being used for patients with confirmed cases of COVID-19 and those tested and awaiting results.

For example, Ehrlich said that San Francisco General Hospital moved from “green” category Monday to “yellow” on Tuesday when they began serving more than nine people diagnosed with COVID-19 or tested. They were serving 15 on Tuesday.

On Tuesday, there were 43 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in San Francisco. That had increased to 76 by Friday.

To help slow the spread of the virus and prevent health care systems from becoming overwhelmed, San Francisco imposed a shelter-in-place order and shuttered non-essential businesses on Tuesday. Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a similar order statewide on Thursday for the 40 million people living in California.

“The more we can do to flatten that curve, the better able we’re going to be to meet the demand with the resources we have,” Ehrlich told the commission.

She added, “If things get really bad, which we don’t really know right now, we won’t be able to solve it on our own.”

On Thursday, Newsom projected as many as 56 percent of Californians could become infected with COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, without mitigation measures like the shelter-in-place order.

He also said that based on a 20 percent hospitalization rate, the state’s 416 hospitals comprising 78,000 staffed beds are short 19,543 beds.

Newsom said the hospitals can surge beds by an additional 10,207, leaving a shortfall of about 10,000 beds. Newsom is now trying to secure more beds to meet the demand.

“If we change our behaviors that inventory will come down,” Newsom said. “We can truly bend the curve to reduce the need to surge, to reduce the need to have to go out and cobble all those assets together. Though I want you to know we are doing just that.”

This story was updated with additional information.

jsabatini@sfexaminer.com

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