Packed ERs Prompt San Diego to Suspend ‘Emergency Diversion' Policy

The policy is designed to lighten the load on overcrowded emergency rooms by temporarily redirecting ambulances to less-crowded medical centers

NBC Universal, Inc.

For the second straight day, local hospitals have received an alert from county officials notifying them of temporary suspension of San Diego County’s emergency diversion policy.

The policy is designed to lighten the load on overcrowded emergency rooms by temporarily redirecting ambulances, which, instead of taking patients to overcrowded ER’s, divert them to less-crowded hospitals.

“San Diego County [emergency diversion] capacity is exhausted," read an alert sent to hospitals on Monday. "More than 80% of all adult civilian ER's are on diversion. Facilities on diversion will be returned to open status immediately and will remain open until 0800 tomorrow morning."

The same alert was re-issued on Tuesday afternoon, according to a county representative.

“In the emergency departments, we do have patients that are literally stacked up 20 to 30 in some of the hospitals, waiting for an open bed that will hopefully be available when we discharge patients,” said Chris Van Gorder, president and CEO of Scripps Health.

On Monday, county officials expressed concern that many people were showing up at emergency rooms with mild symptoms or to get tested.

“Please do not go to an emergency department if you have mild symptoms or no symptoms and want to be tested," said Dr. Eric McDonald, the county's chief medical officer. You only should be using the emergency department if you have an emergency."

Van Gorder also said that COVID cases have had a severe impact on hospital staffing, which in turn is contributing to emergency-room overcrowding and forcing the cancellation of some scheduled procedures.

“We are getting six to eight health care employees calling in with COVID per hour," Van Gorder SAID. "Six to eight per hour."

The health-care exec also said that at Scripps Chula Vista, four of six delivery nurses called in sick, and on Tuesday morning, all in-patient surgeries were cancelled at Scripps La Jolla.

Van Gorder told NBC 7 that since Christmas Eve, there was a 162% increase in the number of hospitalized COVID patients, increasing from 80 patients on Dec. 24 to 210 on Jan. 4.

Meanwhile, at Palomar Health, about 60 coronavirus patients were admitted to the hospital as of Monday morning. That number represents less than one-third of what it was at the peak of last year, according to Derryl Acosta, who is the senior manager of marketing and communications with Palomar.

“The most important message is that Palomar Health still has capacity to treat all patients," Acosta said. "We are very busy but managing the workload. It’s important to emphasize to people that emergency departments triage people according to level of illness; not first come, first serve. Urgent care may be a better option for many people."

At Rady Children’s Hospital, a representative said emergency-department volume is around the same amount it normally is in winter, with about 300-350 patients a day. Of that number, 18% are COVID cases.

Rady Children’s characterized staffing levels as "tight” but said that new employees will be starting next week. The hospital rep said 25-30 staff members are off daily after testing positive for the coronavirus.

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