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Short-Staffed LA Hospitals Ask State For Military Medics To Help

A patient on a gurney in a hospital corridor waits for a room. A curtain provides some privacy. In the background, a nurse wearing protective gear stands in a doorway.
A patient rests in a corridor waiting for a room at Providence Cedars-Sinai Tarzana Medical Center on Jan. 3.
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California hospitals are buckling under the pressure of the omicron variant. As the highly contagious variant continues to sweep through the state, a growing number of hospital staffers are testing positive.

Omicron’s ability to cause mild infections among vaccinated hospital staff is causing a crisis in L.A. hospitals.

“As of today, I have 37 staff out with COVID. I didn't have that last year,” said Kevan Metcalfe, CEO at Memorial Hospital of Gardena.

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The Omicron Surge Takes Its Toll On Hospital Workers
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“I've got a couple hundred nurses, but that's a significant piece,” he said. “Eleven in the last 24 hours tested positive … it's coming from the community.”

As L.A. County’s daily case count has surged to more than 37,000, so have new cases among hospital staff.

“Last week, I think we had 127 of our staff come back testing positive. Every unit is impacted,” said Nancy Blake, chief nursing officer at LAC+ USC Medical Center. “So that's pretty significant. A large number are nurses, but we had respiratory therapists out, we had radiology staff out. So every area moves a little bit slower.”

Each nurse who tests positive will be out for at least a week, creating a snowball effect. The number of L.A. County health workers testing positive for COVID-19 began to surge in December, hitting numbers not seen since a year ago.

“Because of the holidays, a lot of people got together with friends and family more so than last year. And we know omicron is highly transmissible,” Blake said.

California’s test positivity rate now tops a whopping 21%. In an effort to curb new infections, state health officials on Wednesday extended California’s indoor mask mandate by another month, to Feb. 15.

L.A. County health officials went further, requiring employers to provide medical-grade masks to indoor workers by mid-January. But these efforts may come too late for L.A.’s hospitals, where over one-quarter of the state’s 8,670 COVID-19 patients are being treated.

“We're consolidating nursing staff, and using overtime and administrative nurses to fill the void,” Blake said.

The sheer number of sick staff prompted all four of the hospitals run by the County Department of Health Services to ask the state for help. Blake is hoping for 40 to 50 military medical personnel or travel nurses that she can assign to the emergency room to fill the staffing gaps.

If the staffing shortage doesn't abate soon, the next step would be postponing elective surgeries, such as knee replacements. Blake said that could happen any day at LAC +USC Medical Center. Smaller facilities such as Memorial in Gardena have already stopped, said Metcalfe, the hospital’s CEO.

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“Today I had to cancel elective surgeries so that I could access the National Guard through the California Department of Public Health,” he said. "That's the only way that they'll allow us to do it, is if we cancel elective cases, and then move those staff into patient care settings.”

L.A. emergency rooms are also being inundated with frustrated, otherwise healthy people looking for a rapid COVID-19 test. Federal law requires everyone who comes into an emergency room to be triaged, taking up time and valuable tests, Metcalfe noted.

“The problem with that is it uses up quickly all of our rapid tests that we need for our patients being admitted,” he said.

Hospitals need those rapid tests because many COVID-19 patients are only found with the initial screening. Statewide, it’s unclear how many of California’s hospitalized coronavirus patients are there because they needed treatment for the virus or were admitted for a different reason. It can be a tricky distinction to draw, because COVID-19 often compounds underlying health conditions such as diabetes, and patients frequently arrive in the emergency room for multiple reasons.

“I think it's just been pent-up demand for care,” Metcalfe said. “The patients are starting to come back with diabetes and heart disease and strokes and cancer. And we test every patient and, lo and behold, they are COVID positive.”

His emergency room staff is so overwhelmed that Metcalfe notified L.A. County Emergency Management to divert ambulances away from his hospital to others in the area.

California health officials say they’ve brought in more than 1,800 out-of-state health care workers to fill gaps at more than 150 facilities and are working to hire even more. For hospitals in L.A., the help can’t come soon enough.

What questions do you have about the pandemic and health care?
Jackie Fortiér helps Southern Californians understand the pandemic by identifying what's working and what's not in our health response.