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South San Diego County Areas With Most Coronavirus Cases Also Have Fewest Hospital Beds

Sharp Chula Vista Medical Center appears in this undated photo.

Credit: Sharp Chula Vista

Above: Sharp Chula Vista Medical Center appears in this undated photo.

Areas in South San Diego County that have seen a big jump in confirmed cases of COVID-19 also have the fewest hospital beds, according to recent data.

Of the 10 ZIP codes countywide with the highest case counts, six are in the South Bay, according to data reported by the San Diego County Health Department. ZIP codes in Chula Vista and Otay Mesa top the list with more than 100 cases.

Yet, those areas are served by just two major hospitals: Sharp Chula Vista Medical Center with just over 330 beds; and Scripps Mercy Hospital Chula Vista with just over 170 beds, according to 2018 data from the Dartmouth Atlas of Healthcare Project, which studies medical resources nationwide.

A map shows the number of coronavirus cases and the number of available hospital beds in San Diego County.

The data show that 87% of the region's 7,000 beds are in the city of San Diego and cities north of San Diego, leaving less than 900 total beds in South Bay cities.

Hospital officials, however, said if South Bay hospitals are filled to capacity, they could move patients to hospitals in other regions.

"We are a health care system with multiple hospitals and each hospital is prepared to help the other with whatever is required," said Jennifer Chatfield, a spokeswoman for Sharp HealthCare.

Sharp Grossmont CEO Scott Evans said the Chula Vista hospital is also working to increase its capacity.

RELATED: New County Data Show Coronavirus Cases Rising In South Bay Cities

"We have been asked to create an additional 40% over our normal licensed acute care bed capacity," Evans told KPBS Midday Edition. "Most recently we have added additional ICU beds. And so normally we operate with about 48 ICU beds. Today we are operating with 75 and I can tell you that we are already overflowing into those additional ICU beds."

At Scripps Mercy Hospital Chula Vista, the medical-surgical beds are 70% occupied and the intensive care unit beds are 54% occupied, according to spokesman Steve Carpowich.

He said Scripps Health also has a plan to move patients if their volume exceeds capacity at one of the hospitals.

"With five hospital campuses across San Diego County, Scripps is well-positioned to support patient care needs at all of our locations," he said.

An NPR analysis of data from Dartmouth found that among the more than 300 markets that make up the country's hospital system, San Diego County ranks 205th for the number of ICU beds per one thousand residents.

RELATED: ICU Bed Capacity Varies Widely Nationwide. See How San Diego Stacks Up

Hospitals working together

In addition, hospitals across the San Diego region are collaborating to help each other handle patient volume, said Dr. Christopher Longhurst, associate chief medical officer at UC San Diego Health.

"We are all working together across usually competitive lines to make sure that we can serve the population well," he said.

Over the past few weeks, cases have increased dramatically in National City, Chula Vista and El Cajon, according to the county data. Those areas are lower-income than other parts of the county, which means fewer people are able to work from home or socially distance from each other.

The data only show the home ZIP codes of people who have tested positive. They could have contracted the virus elsewhere.

Evans, Sharp's CEO, also said the South Bay case increase could partially be due to the region's proximity to the U.S.-Mexico border. Mexico has seen a big surge in cases in recent weeks.

"I think we are concerned with border cities and are starting to see some activity related to what might be happening in Mexico," he said. "There are lots of people that go back and forth between Mexico and the United States even for work. And so that remains a concern for us."

Chatfield, Sharp's spokeswoman, said last weekend, Sharp Chula Vista received several hospital admissions in a short period of time, "which was somewhat atypical."

Scripps Mercy Hospital Chula Vista has also seen an increase in the number of COVID-19 inpatients since early April, said Carpowich, the spokesman.

"But patient volume has stabilized in the past week," he said.

Comparing San Diego to Southern California

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A chart shows the number of hospital beds per 10,000 people statewide and in Los Angeles County, San Diego County, Orange County, and in Riverside-San Bernardino counties.

Riverside, San Bernardino have fewer beds per capita

Another area that could struggle to handle patient capacity is Riverside and San Bernardino counties, according to the data from The Dartmouth project.

The area has more than 4,000 cases, almost double the number in San Diego County, and fewer hospital beds per capita.

While San Diego, Orange County, and Los Angeles counties each have more than 21 beds per 10,000 people, the Riverside and San Bernardino region has 17 beds per 10,000 people, the data show.

Listen to this story by Claire Trageser.

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Photo of Claire Trageser

Claire Trageser
Investigative Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksAs a member of the KPBS investigative team, my job is to hold the powerful in San Diego County accountable. I've done in-depth investigations on political campaigns, police officer misconduct and neighborhood quality of life issues.

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