IMPERIAL — Local hospitals have received some relief among Imperial County’s COVID-19 storm in the form of help from the State of California.

The California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (Cal OES) has not only extended the Federal Medical Station at Imperial Valley College but has upgraded the level of care at the site, according to a Cal EMSA press release and local hospital management.

Previously, the FMS site — now designated an Alternative Care Site (ACS) by the County — was previously set to close this week, according to a Cal OES release dated July 1. Now, the ACS site can see patients with higher acuity, said El Centro Regional Medical Center’s CEO, Dr. Adolphe Edward.

“Not only is it in operations … they are here indefinite, according to Dr. Dave Duncan who is head of the (California Emergency Medical Services Authority) for the State,” Edward said in an interview just one day after Dr. Duncan’s July 7, visit to the County.

The upgrade allows ECRMC and Pioneers Memorial Hospital to send moderate acuity patients to the 80-bed ACS site, allowing the hospitals to “provide more care for higher acuity patients in their facilities,” said Sergy (Esam) El-Morshedy, legislative coordinator for the California Emergency Medical Services Authority. El-Morshedy said Imperial County now has “an open-end date” for the newly upgraded ACS.

Between May 26 and July 7, a total of 141 patients received care at the ACS, which as of July 8, makes the site at IVC the highest ACS utilized in California, according to Imperial County Public Health Department Emergency Medical Services Agency Manager Chris Herring.

The State of California has sent Imperial County personal protective equipment (PPE), medical equipment, medication, as well as medical staff such as doctors, nurses, and technical staff. The County also requested a different style of beds as part of the upgrade to higher level care on-site. The IVC site has a capacity of 125 beds, per the Cal OES release.

“Public health and county officials are pleased with how quickly staff was able to coordinate the efforts to bring the ACS to our community and make use of this asset,” Herring said. “This is another important step to ensure that local residents have access to the care that they need.”

“We are grateful to Dr. Garcia — IVC president — the staff at IVC, and our state partners for working with the County in such a quick and efficient manner,” Herring said. “The County of Imperial will continue its partnership as long as it is necessary to be able to respond to the pandemic."

With the influx of healthcare workers, supplies, and upgraded care, the ACS will provide some relief on local hospitals, limiting the need for COVID-19 patient transfers, according to Edward.

Edward said the State of California also responded to the requests he made during a live broadcast of a State Senate Joint Committee informational meeting June 30, regarding COVID-19’s impact on California’s border region, sending a number of healthcare workers to ECRMC.

“We are receiving staffing and (more) into next week,” Edward said, “which is going to help us immensely.”

Edward said local hospitals are expecting an influx of COVID-19 patients due to private Fourth of July celebrations.

The ACS facility is assessed monthly — there is currently no definitive word on exactly how long the ACS will actually remain open at IVC as county and state spokespersons gave contradicting statements and no specific dates by press time.

The current usage agreement for the gym between IVC and the County of Imperial was set for May 21, and will not expire for either one year, or if either party decide to terminate the agreement, whichever comes first, according to the Emergency Facility Use Agreement MOU between IVC and the County of Imperial.

However, because IVC is state funded, “ultimately if the Governor wants to ensure that we continue offering the services, he would have the last say,” IVC Superintendent and President Dr. Martha Garcia said.

“The Governor is ultimately the individual who has the right to take over our facilities at any time,” Garcia said, “and we were informed by the Chancellor's office that this could be a possibility.”

Garcia said she is grateful for the collaboration of all parties and the medical staff who are working at the ACS to help Imperial County residents.

“I had one of my family members receive aid here and she didn’t tell me until after she had left,” Garcia said. “It's supporting us as a community but for many of us, it’s supporting our own family members.”

Garcia said the college will continue to utilize distance learning for about 90 percent of its courses for the upcoming 2020-2021 school year. No in-person physical education classes will be held in the gym in the fall. These types of decisions, she said, sometimes keep her up at night.

“I could tell you I personally feel such a tremendous — we all should — responsibility for making decisions that could ultimately impact people's lives,” she said. “I take that very seriously.”

As does Edward, stating that residents should also take precautions against the pandemic very seriously.

“I keep encouraging people to learn to live with a mask,” Edward said, “and if that's the only thing they can do, then please do it, because it will save lives.”

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