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'Omicron is so infectious' | Local hospitals overwhelmed with COVID patients and staff shortages

Scripps Health CEO Chris Van Gorder calls the situation "extremely serious." Several other healthcare providers and hospitals reported similar situations.

SAN DIEGO COUNTY, Calif. — With COVID cases on the rise, San Diego County hospitals are getting overwhelmed. Scripps Health CEO Chris Van Gorder on Tuesday called the situation "extremely serious."

"On Christmas Eve, we had 80 COVID patients in our hospitals," said Van Gorder. "Today, we have 210."

Van Gorder said while those numbers aren't as high as they were this time last year, the difference is now his staff is getting sick as well.

"Because omicron is so infectious, about 15% of our workforce is out with COVID as well," said Van Gorder.

Van Gorder said the problem is compounded by people going to the ER for COVID tests or mild COVID symptoms, which puts a bigger strain on the system.

As a result, some non-urgent surgeries and procedures at Scripps Health and UC San Diego Health have been canceled and patients are often waiting hours for a bed.

"This morning we had five medical-surgical beds in the entire healthcare system, but just at Chula Vista alone, I had 19 patients waiting for a bed," said Van Gorder.

Sharp Chula Vista is also feeling the staffing shortage.

"We were already running lean even before this, and now with more staff having to not be able to come to work that certainly makes things worse," said Dr. Samer Khodor, Sharp Chula Vista Chief Medical Director.

Aya Healthcare, a nationwide traveling nursing agency, said typically there are 400 open positions in San Diego but says in the past two weeks they've been getting more requests from local hospitals. 

"A lot of additional staff or permanent staff, travelers are being asked to pick up the weight, can you work an extra shift?" said Sophia Morris, Aya Healthcare VP of Account Management. 

Kaiser Permanente and Palomar Health say they are also facing long wait times in the ER, many are asymptomatic patients showing up wanting a COVID test.

Dr. Khodor said that unlike last year they are also seeing non-COVID patients. 

"Now we're seeing a lot of high acuity with also non COVID coming in because their disease processes have progressed and they need to be seen," said Khodor. 

And once patients get admitted, they're taking out their frustration on health care workers who are exhausted.

"They have people come in that are literally screaming and yelling at them, in some cases assaulting them. You know, these are just healthcare heroes that are trying very, very hard to take care of the patients," said Van Gorder.

He also requested people not come to the hospital for a COVID test if they have mild symptoms.

Doctors are urging people who are eligible to get vaccinated, get a booster, wear a mask and be kind. 

Meanwhile, outside the hospital, people are scrambling to get tested for COVID.

"We got here over an hour and a half before it opened and there's already 1,000 in line,” said Aaron Knapp.

Knapp was among those who waited for hours on Tuesday at a county-run COVID testing site in San Marcos.

He brought his 3-year-old son who has a cough and said, while the long wait is frustrating, being close to people in line is unnerving.

"It's almost like you're creating a spreader event when you're trying to get tested and be responsible," said Knapp.

Long testing lines are becoming more and more common.

So are signs posted at pharmacies throughout the county alerting customers they're out of COVID tests.

President Biden addressed those issues Tuesday before meeting with his COVID-19 response team.

“I know this remains frustrating. Believe me, it's frustrating to me but we're making improvements,” said President Biden.

Biden said hundreds of military doctors and nurses have been deployed to staff hospitals and that FEMA is on standby to provide more beds when needed.

As for at-home COVID tests, Biden said stores are restocking, and starting next week, insurance companies will be required to reimburse their customers for those tests.

"So, if you're insured, you can buy the test and get paid for it."

Hospitals and healthcare groups across San Diego were experiencing similar shortages and issues as of Tuesday. Several offered numbers and statements to CBS 8: 

Statement from UC San Diego Health:

"As of January 4, 2022, UC San Diego Health is experiencing an influx of patients requiring either outpatient care or hospitalization for treatment of COVID-19. Sequencing tests reveal a mixture of the Delta and Omicron variants. The majority of patients experiencing the most severe symptoms and requiring hospitalization are not fully vaccinated.

All UC San Diego Health facilities remain open and caring for patients. Due to the impact of the highly infectious Omicron variant on our workforce, some non-urgent procedures are being rescheduled to ensure safe, effective staffing levels and optimal care.

Be aware that if you become infected with COVID-19, the availability of FDA-approved antiviral treatments is currently limited. UC San Diego Health physicians are prescribing monoclonal antibodies to the highest risk patients with underlying conditions who meet strict eligibility criteria. Low-risk patients with mild symptoms do not warrant treatment with these medications.

Modeling by the County and UC San Diego researchers predicts that this current surge could exceed past peaks for hospitalizations, due to a combination of increased omicron transmissibility, continued circulation of the Delta variant, and incomplete vaccination among a significant portion of the population. As a member of the public, the strongest measures you can take to remain safe during this surge is vaccinate for both COVID-19 and flu, wear appropriate masking, social distance when unmasked indoors, and use common sense to prevent illness."

Tuesday statistics from Sharp HealthCare:

"As of today, Sharp HealthCare has 251 COVID-positive patients in our four acute care hospitals; 50 of those patients are in the ICU. The total number of patients in our ICUs is 134; that’s 84 patients without COVID and 50 patients with COVID. We currently have a total of 166 ICU beds. So, we are at 81% ICU capacity.

Health care providers, like many organizations, are currently understaffed. The current omicron surge is exacerbating the situation as caregivers are included among those out of work temporarily due to COVID. We are having to adjust operations in response to the current surge and moving resources to manage the increases, which is resulting in record ED volumes.  

Hospitals across San Diego County remain at capacity in their EDs and we, too, are seeing record volumes."

Kaiser Permanente statement (note: As of Tuesday, Kaiser San Diego had not needed to delay or reschedule surgeries but that could change, according to a local spokesperson.): 

"The safety of our members and employees remains a top priority.  While the surge of new infections nationally is the steepest we have seen since the start of the pandemic, hospitalizations thus far have not risen as steeply as in past surges. Hospitalizations for COVID-19 increased following the Christmas holiday. Fortunately, individuals are experiencing less severe illness and fewer hospitalizations from COVID-19 and the omicron variant and we continue to urge all people to receive their COVID-19 vaccination and booster when eligible and to get a flu shot to protect themselves and others.

The last 24 months of this pandemic have been an incredibly challenging and stressful time to work on the front lines of health care. We are extremely grateful for our frontline health care workforce, whose commitment to providing care and service throughout the COVID-19 pandemic has been nothing short of inspiring. We want to thank our staff, who demonstrate resilience, expertise and compassion every day.  

We are managing our staffing judiciously by employing traveling nurses, adjusting elective and non-urgent surgeries and procedures as needed, and leveraging our industry-leading telehealth capabilities.  We are closely monitoring the hospital census, available beds, staffing, supplies and equipment throughout California, as the effects of this omicron surge in the community are likely to be evident over the next several weeks.

As is the case in the rest of the nation, we have seen an increase in testing demand over the past two weeks and we are increasing appointment availability as a result of the omicron surge.  Unfortunately, some people have had to wait in line longer than expected, even with an appointment.  We greatly appreciate our members and apologize for any inconvenience they may have experienced.

Testing is an important tool to respond to new variants in this pandemic, alongside COVID-19 vaccinations and masking. Kaiser Permanente continues to urge all people to receive their initial COVID-19 vaccination and booster when eligible and to get a flu shot, to protect themselves and loved ones especially as we head into this new year."

Statement from Palomar Health issued by spokesperson Derryl Acosta:

"I concur that people should not be coming to the Emergency Department for COVID tests. They should only come to the Emergency Department if they have an emergency. Many people are better served at an urgent care location or even at their primary care physician’s office.

Palomar Medical Center’s emergency department is very busy and those coming without emergencies will experience long waits. Patients with the most serious conditions are treated first.

We have suitable staffing and capacity to handle the current surge in patients but we ask the public to use good judgment when deciding if they need emergency department care."

WATCH RELATED: Hundreds showed up to receive free COVID-19 test kits outside National City Public Library (January 2022)

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