Santa Cruz hospitals, county ask patients with mild COVID-19 symptoms to stay home

SANTA CRUZ — The County of Santa Cruz Health Services Agency issued a message to its community on Wednesday afternoon: Unless the symptoms of your illness are severe, please don’t visit a local hospital.

County health officials made a formal request that those with asymptomatic or mild symptoms of the coronavirus or a non-serious illness, such as a cough, sore throat, runny nose or body aches, to recover from their illness at home and seek primary care treatment through discussions with their doctor.

“People are scared and want to be seen … We wanted to remind people that the emergency department may not always be the best place to go get your care,” Deputy Health Officer Dr. David Ghilarducci said to the Sentinel late Wednesday. “In many cases mild or moderate COVID can be safely treated at home. Obviously, contact your provider or call the number on your insurance card. Talk to a call center nurse if you need to.”

Severe symptoms of COVID-19 specifically include difficulty breathing, chest pain, severe weakness and an elevated temperature persisting for multiple days and are signs that one should visit a hospital.

“Don’t ignore serious illness. If you’re having crushing chest pains, that’s not the time to mull it over. You’ll still be seen right away in that situation,” Ghilarducci said.

Officials added that individuals experiencing less than severe health issues have been taking unnecessary trips to hospital emergency departments that are already overburdened. Ghilarducci confirmed that the local health care workforce is fighting a double whammy of workers contracting the virus on one side of the coin and their peers leaving the field or taking a leave of absence due to burnout on the other.

“We are seeing an increase in cases, an increase in demand (for care) but at the same time health care workers are tired or sick,” he said. “Those two are coming together.”

As a result, the county has made a formal request to the state for supplemental staffing. It is even looking for non-medical staff to act as extra sets of eyes for ER staff.

“We are trying to get medical people to stick with medical tasks and we are finding non-medical people to take off some of the load,” he said.

Dignity Health-Dominican Spokesperson Kevin Kimbrough confirmed that while staff has become experienced at handling COVID surges, the establishment has contracted providers to work side-by-side with the Dominican Hospital team throughout the pandemic.

“We continue to utilize them as staffing needs arise,” he said in an email. “When there are absences for any reason, we utilize (the) resources to ensure we can continue to provide safe patient care.”

Watsonville Community Hospital elected not to comment.

Pursuing protection

To prevent serious illness or death, Santa Cruz County health experts are again requesting that residents pursue vaccination. Though epidemiologists are still learning about the Omicron variant, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that current vaccines do protect against all known forms of COVID-19.

“If you have not gotten vaccinated or boosted and are eligible, please do so now. Do it for yourself, your family, and your community, including the health care workers we depend on to be there when we truly need emergency care,” the deputy health officer wrote in the statement.

Protection is key as Santa Cruz County’s estimated case count has increased 121% in the last 14 days, according to the Health Services Agency.

“The case rate, test positivity rate and the “R” effective number (how fast COVID is spreading the community) all indicate a winter surge. The peak of this latest surge may not arrive for several weeks making it likely that its true impact on public health and the health care delivery system is yet to be fully felt,” health officials said.

As of the statement’s release, the California Department of Public Health’s hospital database showed 16 COVID-positive patients between the county’s two emergent care hospitals. Three of the patients are being treated in the ICU. Three beds are available. The majority of patients are being served at Dominican Hospital.

While the hospitalization rates are improved from the holiday weekend, they are still as elevated as when the Delta variant arrived in Santa Cruz County during summer 2021.

Ghilarducci said that when cases peak, those who arrive in emergency departments will be evaluated as soon as possible but if their conditions are not urgent they will be forced to wait an extended period of time. Today, there are not an increase in admissions but an increase in ER visitors — a trend causing long waiting times and trouble offloading gurneys out of ambulances in order to get them back on the road.

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