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Staffing crisis is slamming California hospitals

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Omicron is sweeping through California, and a growing number of hospital staffers are testing positive. From member station KPCC, Jackie Fortier reports that hospitals in Los Angeles County are asking the state to send in the National Guard.

JACKIE FORTIER, BYLINE: Omicron's ability to cause mild infections among vaccinated hospital staff is causing a crisis in LA's hospitals.

KEVAN METCALFE: As of today, I have 37 staff out with COVID.

FORTIER: That's Kevan Metcalfe. He's the CEO at Memorial Hospital of Gardena.

METCALFE: I've got a couple hundred nurses, but that's a significant piece. And, I mean, 11 in the last 24 hours have tested positive. And they're getting it outside. It's coming from the community.

FORTIER: As LA County cases have surged to daily counts higher than any other time during the pandemic, cases among hospital staff are also climbing. Nancy Blake, the chief nursing officer at LA County + USC Medical Center, says each nurse who tests positive will be out for at least a week, creating a snowball effect.

NANCY BLAKE: I think we had 127 of our staff come back testing positive, so that's pretty significant. A large number of them were nurses, but we had respiratory therapists out, we had radiology staff out. So every area moves a little bit slower.

FORTIER: The number of LA County health workers testing positive for COVID-19 began to surge in December.

BLAKE: Because of the holidays, a lot of people got together with friends and family more so than last year. And then someone came down with it and then someone came down with it. And we know omicron is highly transmissible.

FORTIER: In California, more than 1 in 5 COVID tests are positive. To curb new infections, state health officials extended California's indoor mask mandate by another month. LA County health officials went further, requiring employers to provide medical-grade masks to employees by mid-January. But these efforts may come too late for LA hospitals, where Blake says she's having a hard time filling shifts.

BLAKE: We're consolidating nursing staff and using overtime and administrative nurses to fill the void.

FORTIER: The sheer number of sick staff prompted all four of the LA County-run hospitals to ask the state for help. Blake is hoping for travel nurses or military medics from the National Guard and Army that she can assigned to the emergency room to fill the staffing gaps.

BLAKE: What would help us is somewhere around 40 to 50 because we have - you know, we're a 24/7 service, and most of them work 12-hour shifts.

FORTIER: The next step would be postponing elective surgeries like knee replacements. Blake says that could happen any day at LA County + USC Medical Center. Smaller facilities, like Memorial Hospital of Gardena, have already stopped says CEO Kevan Metcalfe.

METCALFE: I today had to cancel elective surgeries so that I could access the National Guard through the California Department of Public Health. That's the only way that they'll allow us to do it, is if we cancel elective cases and then move those staff into patient care settings.

FORTIER: LA emergency rooms are also being inundated with frustrated, otherwise-healthy people looking for a rapid COVID test. Federal law requires everyone who comes into the ER to be triaged and screened, taking up time and valuable tests Metcalfe says.

METCALFE: The problem with that is it uses up quickly all of our rapid tests that we need for our patients being admitted.

FORTIER: California health officials say they've brought in more than 1,800 out-of-state health workers and are trying to hire even more as the omicron surge is expected to peak at the end of January. For hospitals in LA, the help can't come soon enough.

For NPR News, I'm Jackie Fortier in Los Angeles.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE NATIONAL SONG, "QUIET LIGHT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.