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National Guard activated to assist beleaguered hospitals in rural California

A National Guard sergeant enters a healthcare center in Hollywood in 2020.
Three hospitals in Northern California and the Central Valley have requested National Guard assistance amid a surge of COVID-19 patients. Here, a National Guard sergeant enters a healthcare facility last year in Hollywood.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

The California National Guard has dispatched medical teams to three beleaguered hospitals in Northern California and the Central Valley, where exhausted healthcare workers are weathering another surge of COVID-19 cases and deaths.

Teams of 16 people have been deployed to assist healthcare staffs at Memorial Hospital and Mercy Hospital Southwest in Bakersfield and Mercy Medical Center Redding, said Lt. Col. Jonathan Shiroma, a California National Guard spokesman.

Another Bakersfield hospital, Adventist Health, has requested help from the National Guard, and a 14-person team is expected to arrive Saturday, said Daniel Wolcott, president of Adventist Health Kern County.

“We still need more nursing and clinical support,” he added.

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The deployments come as rural areas of Northern and Central California face their most intense COVID-19 surge yet. The population’s vaccination rate lags far behind that of the rest of the state, despite highly effective and free vaccines being available for months. Local health officials have battled widespread distrust of the vaccines, skepticism about the coronavirus and anger over mask mandates and lockdowns.

The calls for help come as some California hospitals prepare to sever ties with workers who have refused to take the COVID-19 vaccine and did not receive valid medical or religious exemptions. At least one short-staffed Central Valley hospital has said it approved a relatively high rate of religious exemptions in order to avoid an exodus of staffers.

Wolcott said Adventist has been experiencing ongoing staff shortages, and California’s order that all health workers be vaccinated by Sept. 30 was not a key factor in the need for National Guard assistance. He said 90% of the hospital’s full- and part-time workers are vaccinated, and the remainder have qualifying exemptions.

“It’s more due to the fact that there’s such a shortage of nurses nationwide,” Wolcott said. “We’ve had so many nurses leaving to travel to places like Florida, Louisiana and Texas.”

Another Central Valley hospital, Kaweah Health Medical Center in Visalia, is paying $250 to $300 an hour for travel nurses to address staffing shortfalls, Chief Executive Gary Herbst told The Times this week.

The pandemic has “exacerbated a staffing shortage that is impacting healthcare providers across the state, prior to the state’s vaccine requirement,” said Chad Burns, a spokesman for Dignity Health, which runs Memorial and Mercy Southwest in Bakersfield and Mercy in Redding. Another Dignity spokesperson, Christine McMurry, told the Record Searchlight that the Fawn fire, which forced some staff members to evacuate, had left the Redding hospital shorthanded.

Mercy made its first request for additional staffers Aug. 24 and a second, which McMurry described as a “plea for help,” Sept. 24. She said the National Guard team is expected to stay for two weeks.

The National Guard is helping in the emergency department and in other areas of the hospitals as needed, the company said.

Mercy reported an average of 94% occupancy over the last seven days, the fullest the hospital has been since the pandemic started, according to The Times’ COVID-19 tracker. About 38.7% of Shasta County residents are fully vaccinated, compared with 60.1% statewide.

Bakersfield Memorial reported a 96% occupancy over the last seven days. About 43.2% of Kern County residents are fully vaccinated.

California National Guard teams have been sent to support overwhelmed hospitals across the state at multiple times during the pandemic. In December, the National Guard had teams in place in 13 hospitals from Los Angeles to Imperial County. In the early days of the state’s massive vaccine distribution drive, troops helped administer shots at two federally operated sites in Los Angeles and the Bay Area.

National Guard teams were deployed last month in hospitals in Indiana, Georgia, Oregon and elsewhere across the country.

Times staff writer Hailey Branson-Potts contributed to this report.


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