SAN DIEGO – San Diego County’s COVID-19 infections surged to record highs over the weekend, a level which local public health officials are calling “unprecedented” and prompted more calls for vaccinations.
But as cases continue to spike, emergency rooms are overwhelmed, both locally and across the country.
Jeff Behm, managing director of Falck, the city’s contracted ambulance service, said as more patients are coming to the hospital sick with COVID, health care workers also are out due to the virus. The result is causing backups in local emergency rooms due to staffing shortages.
Behm said ambulance wait times at emergency rooms have nearly doubled in the last month, now up to three hours.
“Never before have I seen anything like this where multiple units go into a hospital and are waiting,” Behm said. “It’s really challenging to be in that position with a patient and not being able to turn around and get back out into the city.”
On Monday, San Diego County reported new single-day COVID-19 case highs over the weekend: 12,563 new cases on Sunday, 17,507 on Saturday and 19,009 on Friday. The record has kept falling recently. It last was set with 8,313 new cases reported Jan. 2, according to county data.
In a statement, the county’s Public Health Officer Dr. Wilma Wooter said that while the county expected a post-holiday surge along with effects of the highly contagious omicron variant, “these numbers are unprecedented in this pandemic.”
“The virus is everywhere in our community,” Wooten said. “We must all step up now and re-dedicate ourselves to the precautions that we know work.”
The rise in infections has strained local health systems with some lately including Rady Children’s Hospital, which asked the public not to show up there for a COVID-19 test or with mild symptoms.
On top of long wait times pulling ambulance resources, Behm said 911 calls are up around 30%. Most of the ambulances are staffed, but they’re seeing challenges with some staffers also out due to COVID.
“We are doing the best to staff,” he said. “There’s certain incentives for employees to come in but, again, this is a workforce that’s working so hard and they’re tired and sometimes it’s not just about that incentive. It’s about ‘I need a break.'”
Dr. Christopher Longhurst, chief medical officer at UC San Diego Health, agrees the staffing shortage is serious.
“Over the last seven days, we’ve had over 900 staff test positive for COVID,” Longhurst said.
He also said there are about 100 patients with COVID-19 currently, up from about 30 in recent weeks. He also said, fortunately, there is not currently a steep increase in critically ill COVID-19 patients, but he said models show hospitalizations could spike even higher in a few weeks following a peak in cases.
“We’re managing, but wait times are definitely up and it’s not a great time to visit the emergency department unless you really need it,” he said.
FOX 5’s Dillon Davis contributed to this story.