San Francisco could run out of ICU beds in 17 days if coronavirus infection rate continues

A newsstand displays the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle on Tuesday, March 17, 2020.
The front page of the San Francisco Chronicle on Tuesday, March 17, 2020, at the start of the pandemic. Health officials are again urging city residents to stay home.
(Rong-Gong Lin II / Los Angeles Times)

San Francisco will run out of intensive care beds in 17 days if the current rate of infection remains stable, the director of the San Francisco Department of Public Health said Wednesday.

“That is if things don’t get worse and they very well may,” said Dr. Grant Colfax at a virtual news briefing.

Colfax urged residents to stay home, saying that avoiding contact with others now was “probably the most important message” he has tried to impart since the COVID-19 pandemic began.


“To be blunt, we have one chance to turn this serious surge around, and that chance is right now,” he said. “But our window is narrowing and closing fast.”

He said coronavirus cases have been “skyrocketing” since Thanksgiving and the numbers rise by the hour.

The latest maps and charts on the spread of COVID-19 in California.

The reproductive rate for the virus in San Francisco is now at 1.5, which means every person who contracts it will infect 1.5 others. If that rate doesn’t come down, the number of residents in the hospital with COVID-19 will rise tenfold by early February, he said.

Models also show it is “plausible” that another 1,500 residents will die in addition to the 164 who have already succumbed to the disease, Colfax warned. Bending the rules now will have much more severe consequences than at any time during the pandemic because the virus is much more prevalent, he said.

“The virus is everywhere in our city right now and in so many neighborhoods where it hasn’t taken hold before,” Colfax said. “Even lower risk activities now carry substantial risk …. We can’t get away with things we have been able to get away with so far.”

He said the city will get 12,000 vaccine doses in the first allocation, probably by Dec. 15. The doses will go to acute care hospitals and some nursing homes, he said. Widespread distribution will be underway by spring or summer, he added.

Last Friday, San Francisco and four other Bay Area counties announced that they were preemptively imposing a stay-at-home order, saying hospitals were so overcrowded they had to act immediately rather than waiting for the region to pass the state’s threshold for such an directive.

California has required state-at-home orders to be imposed in regions of the state where intensive care units have capacity at 15% or lower.


At the briefing, Colfax said ICU capacity in the city may drop to 15% this week. Thirty San Franciscans are now in intensive care units and the number has been “increasing dramatically every day.”

Mayor London Breed, also speaking at the news conference, praised the state’s decision to allow playgrounds to reopen but warned that children should be accompanied by only one adult, people should stay six feet apart and everyone 2 and older should wear masks.

She said visits should be limited to 30 minutes, no one should eat or drink at a playground and everyone should disinfect their hands before and after going to a playground.

“Our playgrounds are not an excuse for your to get together with a bunch of other families,” Breed said.

Last Thursday, Breed issued a statement of regret after it was reported she had joined seven others in dining at the French Laundry in early November, a day after Gov. Gavin Newsom made an infamous visit to the posh Napa Valley restaurant.

“The urgency of our public health message in this moment has never been more dire and my actions have distracted from that,” she stated.