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After first being spared, rural California now being ravaged by the coronavirus

Alex Wigglesworth and Rong-Gong Lin II, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

"We definitely are seeing more cases of coronavirus in our hospitals than we ever had," said Dr. Hemmal Kothary, chief medical officer of Dignity Health's Central California division. Kothary oversees Memorial Hospital and both campuses of Mercy Hospital Bakersfield, which together had 260 coronavirus patients as of 10 a.m. Monday.

He said the surge, which began about two weeks ago, has put a strain on resources. Dozens of staffers have also either fallen ill or tested positive for the virus over the past week, he said.

"At one point, we had over 50 nursing staff among the three hospitals that I cover who were out," he said.

A National Guard medical team was dispatched to Memorial Hospital on Monday to help cover the staffing gaps, he said. The team had been stationed nearby at Adventist Health Bakersfield.

Local officials attribute the high case rate in part to an increase in testing. Some testing sites saw a sustained fourfold increase over the past several weeks, Michelle Corson, public relations officer for Kern County Public Health, said Friday in an email. That caused some labs to report supply shortages, which in turn delayed the turnaround time for test results, she said.

On Monday, an average of 24.4% of coronavirus tests over the preceding two weeks in Kern County were coming back positive, much higher than the statewide average of roughly 7%.

 

By Thursday, the rate was lower -- down to 17.6% in Kern County, compared to a statewide positive test rate of 6.1%.

Kothary believes the uptick could be in part linked to the Fourth of July holiday, when many people held large gatherings.

As with other Central Valley communities, Kern County has also seen a familiar dynamic play out, he said: Black and Latino residents and low-wage workers are getting infected at higher rates.

"We definitely have a higher incidence in the Black and Latino communities," he said.

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