SAN DIEGO COUNTY, California — Hospitals in San Diego County have been stretched thin this week because of a sharp increase in coronavirus patients. On Wednesday, for the first time since the pandemic began, more than half of all ICU patients had COVID-19.
South Bay hospitals have been hit particularly hard. Scripps Memorial Chula Vista has transferred patients to beds at other hospitals within the Scripps network every day.
News 8 spoke with Scripps President and CEO Chris Van Gorder (CVG) about how it is handling the surge. The full interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Let’s start with an overall update on what things are like at Scripps.
CVG: We're extraordinarily busy right now. As of this morning, our ICUs are 93% full, and [Tuesday] we had, in this community, 12 hospitals at one time on ambulance diversion, including both Sharp Chula Vista and Scripps Chula Vista, meaning those hospitals could no longer take ambulance cases because they either didn't have space in the emergency department or beds or staff to be able to care for those patients.
COVID is taking its toll. Ever since Thanksgiving, we're seeing obviously a surge. We're transferring patients from South County daily just to make room in our Chula Vista hospital.
The state estimates we have 0.5% ICU availability in the Southern California region. How do we compare locally?
CVG: It's a very serious situation. I would say we're getting close to a crisis and the crisis will come if we see the same thing that happened in Thanksgiving happens at Christmas and New Year's January. It could be a very, very bad month for this community.
It's so bad at this point that we cannot take transfers from Imperial County. Remember, a lot of those patients back in July were from Imperial County. San Diego is a lifeboat for [Imperial County]. We're so full now that we don't have the ability to take those kinds of transfers.
The last time we had a surge, our employees were well, they weren't getting sick. Now we've had, in all of Scripps alone, more than 700 employees get COVID since the very beginning of the pandemic and 88 last week.
We're also having employees going off on temporary leaves of absences because they have to either care for their family members or care for their children because schools aren't open and so we actually have a staffing crisis.
Last time it was regional, today it's national. Last time we could get traveling nurses and registered nurses. Today, we can't do that. I was on a call with hospitals from every single region in the state of California. Everybody is asking for hundreds of nurses and those nurses don't exist.
Just to give you an example, yesterday we had 120 total ICU beds available in San Diego County, but we only had staff for 47 that were vacant. That's counting Rady Children's Hospital and they have very few COVID patients. They have about a dozen right now.
If you look at just the adult population, we had 85 licensed ICU beds available [Tuesday], but only 24 staffed beds available. You look at a community our size, that's a crisis stage.
Our Chula Vista Hospital ICU is full and we're going to put patients in our recovery rooms. That means that we have to reduce our surgeries. We can't do surgery then because there's no place to put the recovering patients. So, we'll reduce that to just emergency cases only.
At Scripps La Jolla, they're doing the same thing. They're at 97% capacity and they've got plans to put patients in the recovery room because we're that's where we'll have the staff to be able to care for the patients.
At Encinitas, we’re 150% capacity. We're surging outside of our standard ICU already. I can tell you the other hospitals in the community are exactly the same as we are. Hospitals are working really well together, and I guess at this point we're very hopeful that the vaccines, which we now have our hands on and can start giving to our staff Thursday.
If we run out of bed space, we may have to send patients outside of the county, is that an indication that we’re starting to run out of options?
CVG: That's true. Except that all those other counties are hurting just the same as we are. The last time we were in a surge, we were taking a lot of Imperial County’s patients. Some of those patients were going all the way up to Sacramento and others to hospitals in Los Angeles and San Bernardino and Riverside County. All of those hospitals are impacted as well at this point.
This is a statewide crisis. I think there were more than 300 people that died just in the last 24 hours in the state of California. Just [Tuesday] we had six patients die. We were fortunate to discharge 30 patients, but we ended up admitting even more than that to the hospital.
What is your advice to somebody that isn’t sure they should go to the hospital for care or thinks somebody else could use the space instead of them?
CVG: If you're short of breath and you feel like you have COVID or any illness and you feel you need help, call for that help. Go to the hospital. We may be busy, but we will, in fact, take care of you.
When I say we're surging outside of ICUs, we have the ability to do that. We will find a way to care for you one way or the other.
The bigger thing I ask people to do is follow the guidelines that we have set up and CDC and the state has asked for. I know people are tired of hearing about washing their hands and wearing a mask and social distancing, but that is the solution until you get the vaccine.
We're not crying wolf. The situation is real and while you may not get that sick, in fact, you may be completely asymptomatic. Somebody else that you interface with might, in fact, get very, very sick and might even die. This is a time for all of us to look out for each other and look out for ourselves.
That light is at the end of the tunnel. We got the vaccine for the very first time this week. We're going to start giving vaccinations to our employees Thursday. The general public will get that in a few months. I often say this is like running a marathon and at the 20-mile mark, you hit the wall. We're at the wall, right? Six miles to go. Don't stop now.
How does this impact the staff?
CVG: They are tired. They really are tired. They're exhausted. I just asked for a report from all of my chief executives. One even said they're getting grumpy, but on the other hand, they also said we've got staff that are volunteering to work in the COVID units. They're volunteering to put in extra shifts because they know that we need them to work extra shifts to care for the increasing census.
The California Hospital Association awarded every health care provider, frontline health care provider in the state of California, their highest award, the Award of Merit. That's an award for people who have done excellent work over an extended period of time and that's exactly what these people have done for four months now.
This is our 308th day in our corporate command center managing COVID. We will be in there for over a year.
We've never faced anything like this in our lifetimes. They're tired, they're exhausted, but they're good. They're taking great care of the patients. We're discharging a lot more every day, which is good. We'd like to send them home healthy and well, but we're asking for your help, help us stay well so that we don't have to take care of you. That would be our greatest wish for the next year.