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Health care system hit with widening staffing shortages as workers get coronavirus

Emily Alpert Reyes, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Health & Fitness

LOS ANGELES — Hospital workers and other health care employees have been getting infected with the coronavirus in rising numbers as cases skyrocket in Los Angeles County, compounding staff shortages at medical centers amid the latest wave of the pandemic.

"We have a very sophisticated health care system, but it is made up of people," said Dr. Kimberly Shriner, medical director of infection prevention and control at Huntington Hospital in Pasadena. "And right now, people are getting COVID."

Roughly 100 front-line workers at the Pasadena hospital are now out because of COVID-19, Shriner said. As cases soar, Huntington has been seeing wait times exceeding five hours at its emergency room. On Tuesday, it started putting elective surgeries on hold.

Staffing shortfalls have pervaded the health care system, not just at hospitals and clinics but also "all of the other parts of the health care system that need to work in a tightly connected puzzle," said Dr. Christina Ghaly, director of the L.A. County Department of Health Services.

Dialysis centers that are thin on employees are sending patients to hospitals instead, Ghaly said. Care facilities where DHS-run hospitals would ordinarily send discharged patients are unable to take them in because of staff shortfalls. And ambulances have been delayed getting to 911 callers and face longer waits at hospitals to unload patients, county officials said.

Emergency medical technicians call it "holding the wall" — waiting for a patient to be unloaded from an ambulance. In L.A. County, shortages of hospital staff have led to some ambulances waiting hours to unload patients, which makes them unavailable for other emergency calls.

 

In cases involving patients with less severe symptoms, "we've had ambulances tied up at hospitals up to eight hours over the weekend while patients wait for open beds," said Jeff Lucia, communications director for the ambulance provider Falck. "To free up ambulances to respond to emergency calls, we've brought in camping cots and placed them at some hospitals, but clearly more needs to be done."

Response times for ambulances, which are supposed to reach people in less than nine minutes, are currently "ranging more at about 12 minutes, with some as long as 30 minutes," the L.A. County Department of Health Services said Tuesday.

Lucia said that if Falck's units weren't tied up at hospitals, they would have enough resources to reach callers quicker. But EMT Ryan Walters, president of the International Assn. of EMTs and Paramedics Local R12-370, called the situation "a predictable outcome of the pandemic and the wages and working conditions of our members."

Walters, who works in L.A. County for Falck, faulted not only rising COVID-19 cases — Falck said 5% of its workforce in L.A. County is now out for COVID-19 quarantine — but also pay levels and workloads that have made it harder to retain EMTs and paramedics.

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