SAN JOSE (CBS SF) — Health officials in Santa Clara County painted a grim picture during a press conference Wednesday, noting how their hospitals were overwhelmed and their staff were fighting to save the lives of a growing number of coronavirus patients.

“It has been relentless and it has not stopped and it is straining our health care system to a breaking point,” said Dr. Ahmad Kamal, Director of Healthcare System Preparedness for the County of Santa Clara.

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Dr. Kamal spoke during a press conference late Wednesday morning about the difficulties South Bay hospitals were facing as case numbers continued to climb.

“As far as the number of cases are concerned, to give you perspective, before Thanksgiving and in October, we were hovering around 4-5 cases per 100,000 people. Now we’re well above 50,” said Kamal. “It is ten times worse than what we had before.”

“The ER is full. Folks are waiting for beds,” said Emergency Department Medical Director at Valley Medical Center Dr. Jeff Chien. “I’m begging everyone to help us out here because we’re not the front line. We’re the last line. We need everyone’s support so that we can continue fighting for, and with everyone here.”

Since mid-October, the county’s seven-day rolling average of new coronavirus cases has jumped more than tenfold, from about 100 per day to more than 1,000 per day by late December. That has caused a ripple effect throughout the entire healthcare system, resulting in tenfold increase in new daily patients — now at 100 per day — and a tenfold increase in the number of ICU admissions.

ICU bed capacity has now dropped to 7%, which includes temporary “surge” beds.

Kamal said patients are arriving at hospitals to find no available beds for them and noted that staff members were being pulled from different departments and areas to help provide immediate care for critically ill patients.

While Santa Clara County has not provided its latest COVID case figures as of Wednesday morning, on Tuesday the county reported 1,115 new cases and 119 new hospitalizations.

Despite only being six days into the month, Kamal said that January is already shaping up to be the most difficult month since the pandemic began last March.

“This has been a very long pandemic. But January has been, by far, the most challenging month we’ve had,” the doctor said. “And as awful as it is, it could get worse.”

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“The realities that could happen are almost too horrible to contemplate,” Kamal continued. “There is a sense of dread and there’s a sense of extreme concern. Because where we are now is a terrible place, but what I dread is how much worse it can get if we fail to turn this around right now.”

Despite the crush of new patients, Kamal said that staff had so far not been forced to make a life-and-death decision based on limited equipment availability.

“We haven’t had a situation where two people are out of breath and one person gets a ventilator. We could get there,” said Kamal.

He cautioned county residents to stay vigilant as community spread of the virus continued to grow during the latest surge in cases, noting that the spike in cases was inevitably hindering medical response as resources were stretched thin.

“When you have so much COVID in the community, we are all vulnerable,” Dr. Kamal said. “Exhausted health workers, people just rushing from patient to patient, we’re having to rapidly turn over beds — none of this is conducive to having the level of care we expect.”

EMS Duty Chief Daniel Franklin tracks ambulance wait times and said paramedics had to hold patients outside of emergency rooms at Valley Medical for an average of 31 minutes in November. That average wait time increased to 55 minutes in December.

“There’s also a common misconception that if you go to the emergency room by ambulance that you’re going to get seen quicker. And I want to dispel that because that’s not the case,” said Franklin. “The hospitals will triage each patient that comes in regardless if they’re a walk in or if they’re brought in by ambulance. So some of our patients we’ve been bringing in by ambulance have gone out to the waiting room.”

Instead of calling 911, Franklin advised the public to first call their primary care physician or go to an urgent care clinic instead.

Santa Clara County Counsel James Williams said that while the COVID-19 vaccine is being distributed in Santa Clara County, so far hospitals were not seeing any benefit in terms of increasing cases.

“First of all, we’re not seeing an impact from the vaccine. A very, very small portion of the population has been vaccinated,” said Williams. “We’re not going to get a good picture of what happened around the holidays until next week.”

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Keit Do contributed to this report.