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'God Help You If You Have A Car Crash Today' – Health Officials Warn Of Overflowing Hospitals

Healthy Fresno County facebook page
Fresno County Interim Health Officer Dr. Rais Vohra speaks during a virtual media briefing on Aug. 27, 2021.

Coronavirus infections are now spreadingfaster in the San Joaquin Valley than in any other region of the state. And as hospitals reach critical capacity, health officials are warning that patient care is at risk.


With more than 1,100 patients being treated with COVID-19 in area hospitals right now, rates of pandemic-related hospitalizations are rising almost as fast as they did during the devastating winter surge. “Our healthcare system is in a state of paralysis,” said Fresno County Emergency Medical Services Director Dan Lynch during a press briefing last week.


Health agencies reported more than 11,300 new cases of the virus in the last week, a 7-day average not reported since the January surge. Seventy-five new COVID-related fatalities made this the Valley’s deadliest week since April.


Unlike during previous surges, however, there’s a smaller pool of traveling nurses available to fill in gaps in care, and local hospitals don’t have the benefit ofmilitary doctors who were deployed to the area for weeks to months last year.


So, Lynch said, with no option to increase staffing, local hospitals are instead being forced to reduce their patient loads. “Ambulances are literally arriving on scene of a patient, and if they meet criteria that doesn’t necessarily meet an emergent condition, we’re telling them that we will not transport them to the hospital,” he said. It’s a move that was unprecedented before the pandemic.


“We are taking care of patients in places that aren’t meant to take care of patients: conference rooms, shelled out construction space, other areas of the hospital that were designed for one type of patient care that we need to use for a different kind of patient care,” said Dr. Thomas Utecht, chief medical officer of Community Medical Centers.


Community Regional Medical Center in Fresno was already one of the state’s busiest before the pandemic. “We are so strained that our ability to take care of whatever you come to the hospital for, not even if it’s COVID…if it’s a car accident, or a stroke, or a heart attack, that is very difficult at this time,” said Utecht.


Ivonne Der Torosian shared similar warnings regarding Saint Agnes Medical Center in Fresno, where she is vice president of Community Health and Well Being. “We’re really struggling to be able to place patients from the ER up on our floors because they’re completely full,” she said. “We run out of ICU beds on a daily basis.”


For those in need of critical care, local hospitals are having to transfer patients as far as the Bay Area and Central Coast, which can further tie up ambulances.


“God help you if you have a car crash today,” said Fresno County’s Interim Health Officer Dr. Rais Vohra. “And I’m not saying that to be petty; it’s really that serious right now.”


In the same media briefing, Congressman Jim Costa said he’d support the request for additional hospital staff from state and federal agencies, while also imploring the public to get vaccinated.


Kerry Klein is an award-winning reporter whose coverage of public health, air pollution, drinking water access and wildfires in the San Joaquin Valley has been featured on NPR, KQED, Science Friday and Kaiser Health News. Her work has earned numerous regional Edward R. Murrow and Golden Mike Awards and has been recognized by the Association of Health Care Journalists and Society of Environmental Journalists. Her podcast Escape From Mammoth Pool was named a podcast “listeners couldn’t get enough of in 2021” by the radio aggregator NPR One.
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