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Quarantined Health Workers Compound Staffing Shortages At California Hospitals

Dec 3, 2020
Originally published on December 3, 2020 7:58 am

The number of coronavirus cases in California has topped 1.2 million, leaving the state's hospitals near a breaking point. There are projections that the state could run out of intensive care beds before Christmas. And Gov. Gavin Newsom says he's considering another statewide stay-at-home order to stop the surge.

Central California's San Joaquin Valley is under particular strain. With a spike in COVID-19 infections, the region's hospitals are suffering from a staffing shortage.

It's only made worse because hundreds of local health care workers are quarantined. And many other places around the state and country are also seeing peaking caseloads and can't send more medical staff to help, says Dan Lynch, director of emergency medical services for Fresno County.

"We just don't have someone to reach out to to help at this time, which is concerning because we haven't been through something like this," Lynch says. Until a vaccine arrives and the caseload goes down, "I think our hands will be full," he says.

Here are excerpts of Lynch's interview with NPR's Morning Edition.

How is the ICU capacity in Fresno now?

The hospitals are pretty full. In our county, especially in central California here, we tend to run at a higher level during this time of the season anyways with cold and flu symptoms that are entering the system. And so the addition of COVID to our system just adds that additional pressure.

At this time, our hospitals are very full. And the same thing with our ICUs. Two of our largest hospitals out of probably five hospitals, our ICU beds are completely full. So it's really a challenge with the hospital system now, mainly because of staffing.

Because you don't have enough doctors and nurses to help with the surge.

Not only that, it's the fact that the health care staff are becoming infected and also being placed out on quarantine because they are coming in close contact with some of these individuals and need to be quarantined. In one instance, our large hospital has over 300 health care workers that are actually on quarantine. So it's not an issue of not having enough beds, it's an issue of not having enough staff to staff those beds.

More patients, less staff. What are your options?

Our only option is to get more health care assistance so that we can get more staffing into our hospitals. We can move people to what we call an alternate care site, which is our convention center where we've set up about 250 beds. But when we have beds in the hospital, that's where people need to be — not on a cot in a convention center, because that takes staffing, too.

How worried are you though because we're now almost 9 months into this pandemic and we are seeing record infections in California and across the country?

I am very concerned this time around because we went through this in our first surge, if you want to call it, back in July and August. But California was kind of late in the game compared to the rest of the country and what advantage that gave us was that we could actually recruit resources, staffing from other areas, to come in to help us.

Right now we're seeing a lot of the country and the rest of the state of California increasing at the same time. So those available resources aren't there anymore. So that's the concern.

Bo Hamby, Taylor Haney and Mohamad ElBardicy produced and edited the audio version of this story. Avie Schneider produced for the Web.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

More than 100,000 people in this country are now in the hospital - 100,000 people sick with COVID-19. That is a number not seen since the start of the pandemic. To put that into perspective, it far outpaces the peaks in mid-April and July of just under 60,000 patients. And the reality is that some of those patients never end up getting better. On Wednesday, the U.S. had the highest number of deaths in a single day. More than 3,000 people lost their lives to the virus - mothers, brothers, friends, grandparents. Hospital systems across the country are at or close to breaking point, including in California. And that's where we go next. There are projections the state could run out of intensive care beds before Christmas. The situation is so serious that the mayor of Los Angeles has now announced a stay-at-home order for residents. And north of there, the San Joaquin Valley in central California is also under strain. And that's where we find Dan Lynch. He's director of Emergency Medical Services for Fresno County, and he joins me now on the line. Good morning.

DAN LYNCH: Good morning, Lulu.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So take me into the hospitals. How is the ICU capacity in Fresno now?

LYNCH: The hospitals are pretty full. We tend to run at a higher level during this time of the season anyways with cold and flu symptoms that are entering the system. And so the addition of COVID to our system just adds that additional pressure. Two of our largest hospitals out of probably five hospitals, our ICU beds are completely full. And so it's really a challenge with the hospital system now, mainly because of staffing.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Because you don't have enough doctors and nurses to help with this surge.

LYNCH: Not only that, it's the fact that health care staff are becoming infected and also being placed out on quarantine because they are coming in close contact with some of these individuals and need to be quarantined. In one instance, our large hospital has over 300 health care workers that are actually on quarantine. So it's not an issue of not having enough beds. It's an issue of not having enough staff to staff those beds.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So more patients, less staff. What are your options?

LYNCH: Our only option is to get more health care assistance so that we can get more staffing into our hospitals, we could move people to what we call an alternate care site, which is our convention center, where we've set up about 250 beds. But, you know, when we have beds in the hospital, that's where people need to be, not on a cot in a convention center because that takes staffing, too.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: How worried are you, though? Because we're now almost nine months into this pandemic, and we are seeing record infections in the state of California and across this country.

LYNCH: I am very concerned this time around. And I say this time because we went through this in our first surge, if you want to call it, back in July and August. But California was kind of late in the game compared to the rest of the country. It what advantage that gave us was that we could recruit resources, staffing from other areas to come in to help us. Right now, we're seeing a lot of the country and the rest of the state of California increasing at the same time. So those available resources aren't there anymore.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Mr. Lynch, just on a personal note, I mean, you are the director of emergency medical services for an entire county. Did you imagine at the beginning of all this that this is where you'd be nine months in?

LYNCH: No, not at all. It's been quite the challenge here, and it's not over yet. So, you know, until we see the vaccine come out, until we see things settle down in regards to no more surging like this, I think our hands will be full until we get control of this.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Dan Lynch, Fresno County's director of Emergency Medical Services. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.