The new COVID-19 vaccine arrived in Tracy this week as reports of new cases and hospitalizations reached new highs and intensive care patients outnumbered the beds that normally would be available for treatment of severe illnesses.

San Joaquin County Public Health Officer Dr. Maggie Park said on Tuesday that the county’s first allotment of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine had arrived that morning and was being distributed to all seven San Joaquin County hospitals providing acute care to COVID patients.

Liz Madison, spokeswoman for Sutter Health, affirmed that Sutter Tracy Community Hospital is among the hospitals receiving the vaccine.

“Across the Sutter Health integrated network of care, we share the excitement and hope that comes with the first allocation and distribution of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine,” Madison said in an email message. “We plan to start vaccinating our front-line health care workers at our acute care hospitals as soon as we are able.”

Park explained the vaccine distribution in a presentation to the Tracy City Council on Tuesday night.

“The vaccines are here. We have two vaccines that we believe we will be able to deploy. We did deploy the Pfizer vaccine today. Very soon the Moderna vaccine is likely to be FDA authorized. These are the two vaccines in the United States and there are more on the way,” Park told the council.

She said that 327,000 doses were shipped to health departments around California, including 4,875 doses to San Joaquin County Public Health Services.

“Those 4,875 Pfizer vaccines we received this morning are going to area hospitals so our health care workers are vaccinated,” Park said.

The county health department expects additional doses to arrive next week, and Park expects that more of the county’s health care workers will be vaccinated, followed by first responders. The county’s skilled nursing facilities will be next, and should begin receiving the vaccine by the end of the month.

The vaccine arrives as the county sees unprecedented increases in COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations. Park explained that new state guidelines from Dec. 3 required counties to have ICU capacity of at least 15% open beds in order to avoid state stay-at-home orders. The San Joaquin Valley Region had 19.7% capacity at the time, but as of this past Saturday the region reported 0% capacity.

“I do want to make sure that people understand that doesn’t mean there are absolutely no ICU beds in the entire county,” Park explained. “This is a calculation made by the state based on how many staffed beds there are, how many beds our hospitals are reporting they can staff.”

“All of our hospitals have surge plans. They have portable beds. They can make room … in medical units that are not the ICU, and that is what they’re having to do in some of our hospitals: expand their ICU capacity by putting beds in other areas of the hospital that are ICU critical care beds.”

Park noted that the county had “flattened the curve” after a surge of cases and hospitalizations in the summer. With the latest spike in cases, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s “Blueprint for a Safer Economy” reports that as of Dec. 15 the county showed an average of more than 55 new daily cases per-100,000 residents, twice as many as the week before.

The state’s numbers are based on data from the previous week, and Park said the county’s epidemiologist put the number even higher as of Tuesday. She said San Joaquin County has seen a weekly infection rate of 534 people per 100,000 residents, translating to 76 daily cases per 100,000.

That puts the county deep into the purple “widespread” tier in Newsom’s “Blueprint.” COVID infections would need to be reduced to below seven daily cases per-100,000, where the county was in October, in order to move to the red “substantial” tier. Only then will the state allow loosening of some quarantine restrictions.

The latest peak in cases and hospitalizations comes two months after the county was on the verge of loosening quarantine restrictions.

After new cases peaked in July and again in August, the 7-day average of reported new cases dropped below 100 in September and reached a low of 40 in mid-October. Reports of new cases started to climb again in November, and then climb even more sharply at the start of December. As of last week the 7-day average topped 570 new cases per-day, with the highest single-day report of new cases, 699, on Dec. 8. The county has a population of more than 762,000 residents as of last year, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Hospitalizations have also risen sharply since the start of December. The low point for COVID-19 hospitalizations was 22 on Oct. 11, and after the rate stayed level for the rest of October it started to climb again in November. On Saturday the number of people hospitalized for COVID-19 passed the previous peak, 262 on July 27, with 267 people in county hospitals. That number keeps rising, with 328 people hospitalized with COVID-19 as of Wednesday.

The county health department reported that 122 ICU patients across the county’s seven hospitals represent 123% of ICU capacity, with 76 of those ICU patients (62%) being treated for COVID-19.

At Sutter Tracy Community Hospital, 25 of the 49 hospital beds in use as of Wednesday are taken by COVID-19 patients, and Sutter Tracy is at 113% of its ICU capacity, with six of nine ICU beds occupied by COVID-19 patients.

The county has reported that 549 people have died of COVID-19 since March. The 7-day average has been between two and three deaths per-day since the start of December. That represents an increase since late October through November, when the 7-day average was one or less. The peak for daily deaths was back in the summer, with a 7-day average of about 10 deaths per-day at the start of August and the highest single-day total (23) reported on July 28.

• Contact Bob Brownne at brownne@tracypress.com, or call 209-830-4227.

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