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Hospitals struggle with latest COVID surge as staff gets sick

San Diego County is seeing a big jump in COVID cases and hospitalizations. KPBS reporter Kitty Alvarado says some hospitals are already canceling elective surgeries.

San Diego County is having the biggest COVID-19 surge since last summer. In three days, the county confirmed more than 17,000 new cases. And hospitalizations are up too, over 700 people are hospitalized with COVID.

The San Diego County Health and Human Services Agency reported 7,786 positive cases and 11 deaths Tuesday.

The new data increased the county's cumulative totals to 457,504 cases and 4,487 deaths. The data follows the weekend numbers, which counted more than 17,000 confirmed cases over three days.

Inside the Intensive Care Unit of a Scripps hospital in this undated photo.
Scripps Health
Inside the Intensive Care Unit of a Scripps hospital in this undated photo.

A total of 18,903 tests were reported on Tuesday, and the seven-day average positivity rate was 24.1%, up from 23.3% on Monday.

Chris Van Gorder, the president and CEO of Scripps Health, said their hospitals are filling up fast.

"We’re seeing a significant increase in cases," he said. "On Christmas Eve we had 80 COVID patients hospitalized at Scripps facilities. Today we have 210, so that’s an increase of 130 patients just in 11 days."

But this surge is different. When COVID-19 infections peaked in the past, Scripps had an employee sick rate of 6.7 %. Now the hospital system is seeing a 14.5% sick rate.

Van Gorder his employee health department is getting six to eight calls per hour from workers reporting that they are testing positive. This, coupled with the surge has forced them to cancel elective surgeries.


"I had five medical-surgical beds available in the entire health care system, but I had 19 patients waiting for beds just at one of my hospitals," he said.

The number of COVID-19-positive patients in San Diego County hospitals continues to climb at a pace not seen since August, according to the latest state figures. There were 682 people in the county hospitalized with COVID-19 as of Tuesday, up from 664 on Monday, 628 on Sunday, 590 on Saturday, 510 on Friday and 475 on Thursday.

Scripps is not the only hospital overwhelmed by COVID-19. On Monday, so many hospitals asked to be put on emergency diversion, the county removed that option altogether

"So that means that all those ambulances that would normally bypass us because we don’t have the staff are coming to our hospitals and dropping off the patients anyway," Van Gorder said.

At Rady Children's Hospital, E.R. clinical director Dr. Scott Herskovitz said its E.R. is being overwhelmed by both sick patients and those who aren't so sick. He said parents should call their pediatrician or their hotline to prescreen them before they go to the E.R.

"A lot of the kids who are coming to the emergency department are having mild to moderate illness and aren’t necessarily needing to be admitted to the hospital for any significant care," Herskovits said. "It’s just the sheer volume of patients that we’re seeing [that] is causing strain on the system itself."

And that’s the message for everyone: call your doctor and don’t go to the E.R. for a COVID-19 test or if it’s not an emergency.

"But if you’re coming in for something that is a less priority, you’re probably going to have to wait a long time. And if you need admission you may be waiting in the emergency room for potentially hours to days," said Van Gorder, adding that those who are in distress, suffering a real emergency, will be helped promptly.

And if you or your loved one have to go to the E.R., he said, please be patient with those who are caring for you.

"People are literally attacking and yelling and screaming at the people that are trying to help them," Van Gorder said. "So we literally had to start de-escalation classes for our doctors and nurses to teach them how to de-escalate people that are hostile when those people came in to get care from us. So it’s a very, very difficult time for people in health care."