Santa Clara County officials warned Wednesday that the county is likely to run out of hospital beds if residents spread COVID-19 during holiday gatherings. (Photo via Hospital Clinic Barcelona/Flickr)

Santa Clara County officials on Wednesday issued one of their most urgent pleas since the coronavirus pandemic began, calling for residents to avoid gathering for Christmas and other holidays as COVID-19 is set to be the county’s third-leading cause of death in 2020.

COVID-19 places behind only cancer and heart disease among the most frequent causes of death in Santa Clara County this year, according to the county, which has confirmed 632 coronavirus deaths as of Wednesday.

The county is also in the throes of its worst surge of cases since the beginning of the pandemic, partly tied to gatherings of friends and family during Thanksgiving, according to county Public Health Officer Dr. Sara Cody.

Cody predicted the county’s hospital capacity would be completely overwhelmed if gatherings for Christmas and other holidays cause the surge to worsen.

“In spite of imploring, begging our community to please not travel and to please not gather, we still had a surge at Thanksgiving,” Cody said Wednesday at a briefing by county health officials.

“It has taken all of our collective might to try to calm things down,” she continued. “But if we have a surge on top of a surge, we will definitely break. We cannot afford that.”

Cody and Dr. Ahmed Kamal, the county’s COVID-19 director of health care preparedness, painted a bleak picture of county residents with non-coronavirus maladies like heart attacks and injuries from car accidents being turned away at hospitals because they’re filled to capacity with coronavirus patients.

According to Kamal, the county is down to 35 intensive care unit beds, with eight of the county’s 10 hospitals having five or fewer ICU beds. Three of them, he said, have fewer than 10 hospital beds of any kind available.

Because of the dearth of beds, nearly 70 emergency room patients on Tuesday had to wait for a hospital bed to open up.

“We are talking about rationing what scarce resources our exhausted health system has left to those who will benefit the most,” Kamal said. “We are talking about people dying who should not have to die.”

Gatherings of any kind between multiple households are prohibited by the state’s stay-at-home order, which is in effect in Santa Clara County and the rest of the Bay Area at least through Jan. 7.

The county also mandates that residents who travel more than 150 miles away from the county quarantine for 10 days upon their return.

Kamal implored residents to cancel their holiday plans immediately if they have yet to do so, even if those plans included driving to a relatively close destination rather than flying.

“I cannot emphasize enough how our collective actions today and tomorrow and the next day are a matter of life and death,” he said.