FREMONT, Calif.-California's hospitals have experienced their own form of El Nino in recent weeks, with an apparent flood of patients so large many facilities are reporting a clogged emergency room and a near-capacity census.
Since late last month, 202-bed Washington Hospital in Fremont, a Bay Area suburb, has pitched tents in its parking lot to cope with the flood of patients. Kaiser Permanente has distributed literature to members telling of average emergency room waits of six hours. Health officials in Sacramento County declared a medical emergency and began diverting ambulances to whichever hospital could accept them. Many outpatient centers have expanded hours.
Beverly Hayon, a Kaiser spokeswoman, noted that visits to Kaiser's urgent-care facility in San Francisco are up nearly 70% to about 500 a day.
Vacations for most members of the Kaiser medical staff have been postponed, and some physicians already on vacation have been recalled, officials said.
In Southern California, the five-hospital Los Angeles County system inpatient census is about 90%, while private hospitals are at upward of 85% capacity. Typically, both public and private hospitals fill about 65% of their beds this time of year.
"We've had a lot of hospitals say they can't take much more," said Jim Lott, senior vice president of the Healthcare Association of Southern California, a hospital trade group.
Observers said they believe the upsurge in activity will last until early spring, when the flu season typically ends.
But even as hospital officials steadfastly pin the blame on the flu and a spate of respiratory ailments, organized labor and the California Department of Health Services believe staffing shortages pose a greater problem than patient admissions.
Ken August, spokesman for DHS, said an informal staffing survey of the state's approximately 500 hospitals is under way to identify shortages.