UCSD Health ER nurses call out overcrowding as hospital sees “unprecedented” demand

Emergency room nurses at UC San Diego Health’s La Jolla Hospital held a rally to point out what they say are unsafe and overcrowded conditions as the health system deals with a surge in patient numbers.

UCSD nurses from the California Nurses Association made a plea for more staff and resources Thursday outside the emergency room at Jacobs Medical Center.

“This is not the care we want for our patients or for our own families,” said Estefania Urbano, an emergency nurse at UCSD Health.

Urbano said he worries about long wait times and treating patients in the hallways, especially those who may be immunocompromised.

“It’s humiliating for patients and most importantly an infectious risk for others,” Urbano said.

UCSD health officials said that they have was very busy – seeing a historically high number of patients.

“Like hospitals across California, UC San Diego Health is currently experiencing unprecedented demand for its medical and surgical care — a need that is outpacing available hospital beds,” a UCSD spokesperson said in an emailed statement. “The impact is most visible in our emergency departments.”

The statement also said the hospital system is taking all possible measures to care for patients, which sometimes means using overcrowded areas or even diverting ambulances due to demand.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Jocelyn Belleza, a UCSD Health ER nurse who has worked in the system for 20 years. “It’s gradually gotten worse to the point where we now have to stand up and demand more attention.”

Belleza and others said the situation is not sustainable.

“There’s a big increase in burnout when you don’t have any support and there’s very low morale among staff,” Beleza said.

March was especially busy at UCSD Health’s La Jolla campus. There are two cases where an “internal disaster” has been declared, meaning ambulances cannot bring patients. San Diego County officials said the domestic disaster declarations occurred on March 2 around 10 p.m. and on March 7 around 6 p.m.

Emergency room nurses and the union that represents them are calling for more nurses and other support staff. They said the management has provided additional assistance, but it is not enough.

“All my colleagues and the staff are doing their best to do their jobs, but at the same time we need space, we need equipment – all the support we can get from management,” said Maria Tan, a health nurse and UCSD union representative.

UCSD Health isn’t the only hospital system with busy emergency departments. Scripps Health officials said they are dealing with an increased number of emergency room patients and recently opened a temporary 16-bed facility at Scripps Mercy in Chula Vista to meet the demand.

“We need the county’s help to place our patients in skilled nursing facilities and behavioral health facilities, and to reduce ambulance traffic from emergency rooms to alternative care locations for patients who do not need the high of care delivered in the emergency department,” said Dr. Ghazala Sharif, chief medical officer of Scripps Health.

Sharieff said the moves will help transfer patients from the emergency room to other parts of the hospital, thereby reducing pressure. Sharp HealthCare representatives also said their emergency rooms have seen an increase in patients.

“Both walk-ins and patients coming in from doctors,” said John Chychomsky, a Sharp spokesman. “While this increase has placed a strain on San Diego’s EMS (emergency medical services) systems, Sharp maintains established quality and safety standards and appropriate nurse-to-patient ratios to provide high-quality emergency care.”

Kaiser Permanente San Diego officials said the number of patients so far this year is up about 7 percent compared to last year.

“Wait times are — broadly speaking — the same, with (the majority of) patients being seen within an hour,” said Jennifer Dailard, a spokeswoman for Kaiser San Diego.

UCSD health officials said they are adding extra nurses whenever possible to ease the strain. They also want to remind the public that minor health problems can be solved with one-day emergency room visits or even telehealth conferences.

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