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South Bay hospitals overwhelmed by patients, declare state of 'internal disaster'

For weeks we’ve been hearing warnings about hospitals being stretched to their limits. On Tuesday, the South Bay’s two main medical facilities declared “internal disasters” because of a flood of patients. KPBS Speak City Heights reporter Jacob Aere tells us how things are looking niow and what’s ahead.

South Bay hospitals are being overwhelmed with patients.

The situation became so severe Tuesday that the region's two leading medical facilities declared "internal disasters," a status reserved for hospitals to tell the region's emergency medical services system they're unable to accept any more patients.

That includes people arriving on ambulances despite a countywide ban on diversion, where hospitals declare they cannot accept new ambulance arrivals.


RELATED: Hospitals struggle with latest COVID surge as staff gets sick

The outside of Scripps Mercy Hospital Chula Vista is pictured, Jan. 19, 2022.
Carlos Castillo
A woman walks outside of Scripps Mercy Hospital Chula Vista on Jan. 19, 2022.

It's a last-resort option when hospitals have no more beds or resources to safely care for patients.

"There was just no more place to put anybody. And we had five ambulances waiting to offload their patients," said Dr. Ghazala Sharieff, Scripps Health's chief medical officer.

She said the situation at Scripps' Chula Vista hospital resulted from a perfect storm of staffing shortages, new patients and a cluster of severe cases.

"We had 23 patients in our tents, we had 20 hallway beds, so imagine how small a 24 [bed] emergency department is in the first place," Sharieff said. "All of our ICU beds were occupied, as were our medical/surgical unit beds, so we were expanding into the surgical areas."


The internal disaster was called off at Scripps Chula Vista on Tuesday night. Sharp Chula Vista Medical Center also called its own disaster Tuesday evening, which ended early Wednesday morning.

RELATED: County crosses 600,000 COVID-19 cases, could be 'sliding down omicron slope'

Scripps shifted some patients out of Chula Vista to other hospitals across San Diego County. Sharp's Chula Vista facility did not have to do so.

"The difference this year is that staff is incredibly thin," Sharp Healthcare CEO Chris Howard said, comparing the situation with the January 2021 COVID-19 surge.

"Not only are our hospitals and emergency department incredibly full, but staffing is incredibly stressed. We have staff that are out with COVID," he said. "We have staff that have retired or resigned due to the stress of now what is approaching the third year of this pandemic."

The outside Sharp Chula Vista Medical Center is pictured, Jan. 19, 2022.
Carlos Castillo
The outside Sharp Chula Vista Medical Center is pictured, Jan. 19, 2022.

The good news for health care providers is that the county's paramedics now have an option that may prevent another logjam of their facilities, Sharieff said.

"The county did just release yesterday what they call treat and assess for the paramedics, which means that they can offer different solutions to patients that don't have truly emergent conditions so they don't come to the emergency department in the first place," she said.

RELATED: San Diego County sees rise in COVID hospitalizations

This was the first time Scripps and Sharp declared the internal disaster status due to the pandemic for any significant amount of time.

Sharieff and Howard both said their organizations' models show one to two more weeks before the omicron wave starts its decline.

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