COVID-19 increasingly crowding out other types of care in San Diego hospitals

A patient on a stretcher is wheeled from an ambulance into a hospital
Paramedics deliver patients to the emergency department at Sharp Grossmont Hospital in La Mesa on Aug. 12.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda / San Diego Union-Tribune)

Hospitals in San Diego are delaying surgical cases as the Delta variant of the coronavirus and a simultaneous surge in demand for care not related to COVID-19 continue to put pressure on burned-out healthcare workers.

Chris Van Gorder, president and chief executive at Scripps Health, said Friday that his organization has been forced to delay 27 surgeries as the collective number of COVID-19 cases hit 193.

Brett McClain, executive vice president and chief operating officer at Sharp HealthCare, also said that the volume of cases for weeks, coupled with the increase in COVID-19 patients, has forced some rescheduling; a specific number was not available.

“We are having to deal with moving around — not canceling but delaying — scheduled procedures, for sure,” McClain said.

The region reported 1,865 new cases of the coronavirus on Friday, showing no signs of a downward trend. Meanwhile, local medical providers say they are seeing numerous other illnesses, especially chronic problems like out-of-control diabetes, that are likely linked to the delay in 2020 of nonemergency procedures.

The surge in routine medical work, along with COVID-19, McClain said, is causing the hospital system to back up, resulting in longer waits at every point.

“Every step along the way has been delayed, from the pickup time at the home, all the way to the hospital,” he said.

Both executives said staffing issues continue to complicate the healthcare picture.

“We lost another physician who sent me a note and said he could not do this anymore,” Van Gorder said. “It’s taking a significant toll on the healthcare workforce.”


The local COVID-19 death rate, which has been in the single digits for months, is showing signs of a rise, despite the fact that today’s patients tend to be younger than those who flooded hospitals in December and January. The San Diego County Public Health Department’s weekly update, released Wednesday, reported 25 COVID-19 deaths, the highest single-week total in more than two months. In all of July, the county reported only 18 COVID-19 deaths.

The 25 deaths on this week’s list were mainly among patients with underlying medical conditions, as has been the case throughout the pandemic. But two had no health problems other than COVID-19: a 49-year-old man who died Aug. 19 and a 59-year-old man who died Aug. 13.

Because of processing delays, reports of COVID-19 deaths are often a reflection of the situation several weeks prior. But Van Gorder said in an email Friday that COVID-19 deaths seemed more frequent last week, with Scripps hospitals recording “deaths every day.”

McClain highlighted some significant changes among the coronavirus-positive patients the Sharp HealthCare system has treated recently. The average age of COVID-19 patients at the four Sharp hospitals has fallen to 52 from 64 during the winter surge, and the percentage of patients younger than 50 has risen to 42% this summer from 21% last winter.

More patients younger than 50 require immediate oxygen therapy than before: During the winter wave of cases, 52% were sick enough to need oxygen immediately, compared with nearly 64% of those treated since June 15. And overall, patients younger than 50 are staying in the hospital longer: In the winter, 51.7% of patients in that age group were discharged after five days in the hospital, compared with 41% during the current surge.