Omicron wave forces emergency changes for ambulances, hospitals in 4 Central Valley counties

FRESNO, Calif. (KFSN) -- Hospitals in Fresno and Clovis are now reporting that hundreds of staff members have tested positive for the coronavirus -- just as they're needed to take care of more COVID patients.

Community Medical Centers says 717 of its healthcare workers are in isolation due to exposure as of Wednesday, including 690 staff members who have tested positive.

Because of the shortage of healthcare workers and the dramatic increase in patients, four Central Valley counties are changing how they respond to 911 calls.

Paramedics will still answer 911 calls, but they're implementing an "assess and refer" policy because COVID patients are crowding hospitals.

The net result will be that ambulances will not take about 15-20% of patients to the emergency room.

The number of COVID-positive patients in Fresno County hospitals has jumped by 45% in the last week, rising to levels unseen since the delta surge in September.

County health officials say the situation is getting worse and combined with hundreds of healthcare workers getting sick, it's drastically changing how hospitals can treat patients.

"I think the general public needs to know the care they receive will be different," said Fresno County interim health officer Dr. Rais Vohra. "I think we need to be very realistic about that. The hospitals are at a breaking point."

Fresno, Tulare, Madera, and Kings counties are all feeling the impact when ambulances hand off patients to emergency room staff.

Paramedics are extremely busy and needed out on the streets, but often they are stuck waiting in hospitals because they can't get their patients admitted into the ER.

"We see ambulances getting stuck in a hallway of a hospital sometimes up to four hours," said Fresno County EMS director Dan Lynch. "We just had one 20 minutes ago get released after four hours."

"Because you can't just drop and go," said Dr. Vohra. "You have to turn them over to a team member who is responsible for the patient's care."

All four counties implemented an "assess and refer" policy Wednesday for the fourth time in less than four years.

Paramedics will refer less seriously ill patients to urgent care or a private doctor instead of even loading them in an ambulance.

Fresno County will also get ambulance patient offload teams from the state, helping to alleviate the ER check-in backlog.

Dr. Vohra says the omicron wave is forcing some uncomfortable decisions with risk involved.

They're looking for the safest way to proceed without letting systems collapse.

That includes discussions about how to carefully implement new guidance from the state allowing healthcare workers to get back on the job immediately if they're asymptomatic, even if they're COVID-positive.

"The ideal situation is we could bring people back and have them take care of COVID patients that are known to be COVID-positive and there's really not a risk of spreading COVID," said Dr. Vohra.

Fresno County is also about to have 84,000 at-home COVID test kits to distribute, with special focus on people in the restaurant industry and in 32 zip codes.

They're hoping to know later this week when they'll arrive and you'll be able to order them and report your results through the county's website.
Copyright © 2022 KFSN-TV. All Rights Reserved.