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SAN DIEGO — Two San Diego-area hospitals were forced to temporarily declare an “internal disaster” Tuesday as surging COVID-19 cases combined with staff shortages put patient care in jeopardy.  

At Scripps Memorial Hospital, healthcare workers are treating 356 COVID-19 patients. Thirty-nine were admitted Tuesday night. 

“Fifty-nine patients are in the intensive care unit and we had five deaths yesterday,” Ghazala Sharieff, chief medical officer of acute care at Scripps Health, told FOX 5 Wednesday. “Deaths are going up and that is absolutely very concerning.”

All hospitals in San Diego County are operating under a ban on what’s called diversion — asking EMTs to bypass and take patients to another emergency room if the hospital is too busy. Calling an internal disaster allows a hospital to override that ban until they can safely catch up.

Sharp Hospital in Chula Vista also called an internal disaster Tuesday night. 

“We had a patient come in with COVID who we needed to put a breathing tube in,” Sharieff said. “Imagine that when we have no ICU beds so that just adds another layer of stress to already fatigued healthcare workers.” 

Calling an internal disaster gives hospitals time to move staff around — discharging the less critical and triaging those who can be sent away outside, thus opening beds for true emergencies.

“It was not just COVID patients — we actually had five ambulances waiting with over two-hour offload time so the no diversion just means that they just have to wait as well,” Sharieff said. “There’s no place to offload them to.” 

This week, 10% of Scripps’ roughly 18,000 employees were out sick. It’s an improvement from last week’s 15%, but with staff shortages throughout, it only further illustrates the health system’s vulnerabilities.

“People are tired,” Sharieff said. “It’s called the ‘great resignation’ for a reason. The toll on the healthcare workers, many of them have decided they don’t want to do this anymore.”