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SAN DIEGO (CNS) – San Diego County residents were being urged Thursday to avoid emergency rooms for COVID-19 testing, amid increases in both hospitalizations and staffing shortages exacerbated by a surge in coronavirus infections.

The number of COVID-positive patients in San Diego County hospitals continues to climb at a quicker pace than any other time in the pandemic, an increase of more than 400 since Christmas, according to the latest state figures.

There were 774 people in the county hospitalized with COVID-19 as of Thursday, up from 717 on Wednesday, 682 on Tuesday, 664 on Monday, 628 on Sunday, 590 on Saturday, 510 on Friday and 475 last Thursday.

Of those patients, 147 were in intensive care, up six from the previous day. The number of available ICU beds increased by one to 180.

Some COVID-positive patients may have been hospitalized for other reasons and had their COVID status discovered by hospital-mandated tests.

The county Health and Human Services Agency recommended that people worried about COVID-19 infection and others seeking COVID-19 testing only go to a hospital to be tested if they have severe symptoms.

“Do not go to an emergency department just to get tested, and only go when you have symptoms that need emergency care,” said Dr. Cameron Kaiser, county deputy public health officer.

“If you’re experiencing no COVID-19 symptoms, have mild illness or have not been exposed to someone who tested positive, go to one of the many testing locations available in the region.”

Together, all testing sites in the county have the capacity for around 45,000 tests daily. The HHSA said rapid antigen tests, which are available at many local pharmacies, are a good option if a testing site is unavailable. Those who test positive on a rapid test should follow the healthcare guidance and generally do not need a confirmatory PCR test unless instructed by a doctor.

“Currently, there is a high demand for COVID-19 testing, so we’re asking San Diegans to be patient as testing traffic can surge and sites can be very busy,” Kaiser said.

A total of 5,726 new infections were reported on Thursday. The cumulative total for the region’s cases increased to 471,278 while deaths remained unchanged at 4,495.

A total of 24,344 tests were reported Thursday, and the seven-day average positivity rate was 25.4%, up from 25.3% up on Wednesday.

Dozens of city workers began receiving advanced termination notices on Thursday for failure to comply with the city’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate for employees.

City officials reported 86 employees were sent the notifications, far fewer than the more than 900 sent letters providing some options in December.

A city spokesman reported this week that 85% of its around 11,300 employees were fully vaccinated, 9,695 in total with 1,095 requesting a religious or medical exemption.

City employees had until Monday to get the vaccine or select from a list of other options such as requesting a religious or medical exemption, taking leave without pay, resigning or retiring.

Those who chose none of the above options were sent termination notices and could face a hearing with “all due process rights and rights to representation.”

However, those employees who become fully vaccinated before they receive the final termination notice will not be fired, city officials said.

UC San Diego announced Thursday that its remote instruction period would be expanded through January due to a surge in new COVID-19 cases.

In a statement, UCSD Chancellor Pradeep Khosla said the spread of the omicron variant has led to staffing shortages and impacts to student attendance, prompting the university to delay the return to in-person instruction until Jan. 31.

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