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California Hospitals Face Staff Shortages As Hospitalizations Soar


Hospitals in California are facing a staffing shortage heading into the middle of winter. NPR's Eric Westervelt has been speaking with health care workers there.

ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: With ICU space at crisis levels in some population centers, the start of vaccine distribution this week gave everyone a desperately needed dose of good news. California Governor Gavin Newsom embraced that while also warning that the nation's most populous state is struggling with the virus's deadliest wave yet.


GAVIN NEWSOM: Light at the end of the tunnel, but we're still in the tunnel.

WESTERVELT: Southern California and the state's Central Valley are reeling. Less than 2% of ICU beds there are available, and many hospitals are overwhelmed. Already this week, single-day death records have been broken in San Diego, Santa Clara and Los Angeles County. LA on Wednesday hit a record daily high of 131 COVID-19 deaths. Barbara Ferrer is the county's public health director.


BARBARA FERRER: Every hour, on average, two of our neighbors, family members and friends are dying from COVID-19. And the virus is rampant in all neighborhoods.

WESTERVELT: Key parts of the state are now in surge mode and opening makeshift hospital areas. But many don't have the staff to manage the extra load, and the state has limited options to try to fix that staffing crisis. Slammed hospitals are using emergency rooms to house critical patients, and many are postponing elective surgeries and repositioning surgeons and nurses. Dr. Stephen Parodi is an executive vice president with Kaiser Permanente, which in the last two weeks has seen hospitalization rates rise nearly 40%.

STEPHEN PARODI: So we're actually taking all the different hands we have on deck and moving them to where they're needed most, which is, right now, in our hospitals and emergency department.

WESTERVELT: And some hospitals are boosting the number of ICU patients that nurses treat at one time. In Fresno County, for example, that means ICU nurses will have to add a third critical patient to their workload, a move Fresno EMS director Dan Lynch concedes means additional strain on already exhausted staff.

DAN LYNCH: It's a temporary fix. And it does impact those health care workers when you're taking care of a very critical, very complicated case in the ICU and now you've got three of them.

WESTERVELT: Lynch says the county is also adding another temporary fix - quick training nurses to work in ICUs. The crisis even saw Governor Newsom this week once again make a plea to recently retired health care professionals to consider returning now.


NEWSOM: We'll provide supports in terms of hotel rooms and transportation and try to waive as many of the fees and related costs associated with getting you back into the workforce on a temporary basis to help us through this very difficult time.

WESTERVELT: California also has requested federal help, including 200 Department of Defense medical workers, and state emergency officials are actively seeking hospital help from Australia and Taiwan. The staffing challenges have left hospital workers in COVID-19 hotspots even more burned out.

AMY ARLUND: It's the constant frustration and anger and fear that weighs us down.

WESTERVELT: Amy Arlund, an ICU nurse in Fresno, says she's frustrated some in her community are supporting first responders with empty slogans, not actions. After a recent shift, Arlund says she was stunned to find a local church group - adults and children - going door to door, maskless, singing Christmas carols, turning a holiday tradition into a potential superspreader event.

ARLUND: We are in the thick of it now because people won't stay home and because of activities like this. And, you know, I'm not asking anymore. I'm telling you - stay home.

WESTERVELT: Eric Westervelt, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF TYCHO'S "SOURCE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eric Westervelt is a San Francisco-based correspondent for NPR's National Desk. He has reported on major events for the network from wars and revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa to historic wildfires and terrorist attacks in the U.S.