Local hospitals say they’re facing staffing shortages worse than last winter’s coronavirus surge, as Orange County officials track a wave of infections hitting staff at several agencies – ranging from sheriff’s deputies to social workers to prosecutors – as the more infectious omicron variant spreads in the community.

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While COVID hospitalizations are still lower than last winter, they are increasing rapidly just as health facilities are grappling with shortages in personnel, the regional hospital association said in a statement Monday.

“While hospitalizations have not reached levels experienced last winter, this comes as the health care delivery system faces some new challenges,” said Adam Blackstone, vice president of the Hospital Association of Southern California, which represents OC hospitals.

“These include even more significant staffing shortages, increased demand for additional health care services such as flu treatment, and now-urgent procedures that were put on hold earlier in the pandemic,” he added.

Because of the rise in patients, hospitals are urging people with mild or asymptomatic symptoms to seek care elsewhere, such as urgent care or primary care doctor’s offices.

A sharp uptick in infections also has been hitting one of OC’s largest workforces – the county government.

Confirmed cases among county staff have ballooned fivefold last month – from 87 cases per month in October and November to 432 in December, according to county data obtained by Voice of OC.

The pace of confirmed infections has sped up even further this month, with over 90 employees logged as positive in the first four days of January.

That’s triggering deep concerns among workforce advocates like Charles Barfield, president of the Orange County Employees Association, that county officials aren’t doing as much as they could to keep workers safe.

“This seems like January 2021 all over again with cases rapidly rising with nearly 30 County facilities in outbreak status. What is even more concerning is how backlogged the contact tracing team appears to be,” Barfield said in a statement.

“Similar to last year, the County got caught completely unprepared for the onslaught of cases and now is struggling to catch up,” he added.

“County workers deserve action now to get on top of these cases to keep these workers as safe as possible.”

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Departments with the most infections so far since the beginning of December include the:

  • Sheriff’s Department (162 staff), 
  • Social Services Agency (142 staff), 
  • Health Care Agency (59 staff) and
  • DA’s office (28 staff).

Several other agencies with hundreds of employees, many of whom normally have contact with the public, have seen smaller numbers of cases. Those include the:

  • Public Defender (9 staff),
  • County Executive Office (12 staff) and
  • Child Support Services (7 cases).

Throughout the pandemic, there has been a clear shift in infections, with the virus affecting certain departments more than others.

The COVID spike among county workers wasn’t something that most county supervisors were willing to speak to on Monday.

One county supervisor said the surge was hitting the county like every other place. 

“So many more people are sick with Covid. It’s everywhere in every industry,” said Supervisor Katrina Foley in a text message to Voice of OC.

Yet Foley did acknowledge there are areas where the county could be doing better. 

Among the issues the county is grappling with, there’s been delays in getting access to tests, Foley said.

She also confirmed Voice of OC reporting that the county is facing a major backlog in calling employees for contact tracing to prevent further spread of coronavirus at county offices – something she said every major county health department in the nation is facing.

“We are prioritizing vulnerable communities first and relying on employees who test positive to stay home, quarantine or isolate for the required period, test before returning to work, and wear a mask at work,” Foley said.

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County officials are preparing for staffing shortages at health facilities from the surge, with one in five people getting tested in Orange County now testing positive for COVID, according to laboratory data reported to the county.

Over the weekend, Orange County health officials notified local hospitals and ambulance companies that due to the surge and the staffing shortages that it’s causing, Covid-positive healthcare workers who are asymptomatic can now immediately return to work even when they’re still testing positive – as long as they’ve exhausted all of their other efforts to maintain staffing levels.

“Under the updated guidance, health care workers who test positive for SARS- CoV-2 and are asymptomatic, may return to work immediately without isolation and without testing, and health care workers who have been exposed and are asymptomatic may return to work immediately without quarantine and without testing,” states a Saturday memo from the state the county forwarded to local emergency workers.

“These [healthcare workers] must wear an N95 respirator for source control. Facilities implementing this change must have made every attempt to bring in additional registry or contract staff and must have considered modifications to non-essential procedures.”

The sheriff’s spokeswoman said no employees of the department are currently hospitalized.

“Just like in the community, we have seen an increase in employees testing positive for COVID,” said sheriff spokeswoman Carrie Braun.

“We continue to follow public health guidelines for mitigating COVID.”

Sheriff staff are getting hit with COVID-19 illnesses at a much higher rate than other large county departments, and are by far the largest share of pandemic-related worker’s compensation costs the county has paid so far, according to county data obtained through a records request by Voice of OC.

Sheriff staff had the lowest self-reported vaccination rate – 21% – among county employees, as of the latest available data from December.

The union president for OC sheriff’s deputies said his members have continued to stay vigilant amid the surge.

“AOCDS members have been on the frontlines since the beginning of the pandemic,” said Juan Viramontes, president of the Association of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs.

“They have been resilient through the increase in positive cases, adapting and working through the challenges to maintain public safety.”

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Officials at the DA’s office, which recently lost prosecutor Kelly Ernby after she reportedly fell seriously ill with COVID and later died, said they are following state and county health guidance and giving staff the option of working from home if managers allow it.

“The District Attorney’s Office has instituted a telecommuting option for positions that are able to work from home, following the County’s guidelines for telecommuting,” said DA spokeswoman Kimberly Edds in a statement.

“Employees must receive prior manager approval. Employees at work must wear masks in the office.”

A review of county infection data shows recent case clusters at multiple DA workplaces in OC, including three separate floors – 2nd, 5th and 7th – of the DA’s headquarters at 300 N. Flower St. in Santa Ana, as well as the DA’s bureau within the nearby county courthouse.

County of Orange spokeswoman Molly Nichelson said County CEO Frank Kim was not aware of any staffing shortages causing disruptions to county services as of Monday.

Nichelson didn’t have answers Monday about what is being done at county workplaces to prevent the spread of coronavirus, and to what extent the county is shifting to having employees telework.

The county court system also is being impacted, with judges urging people to appear virtually rather than in person as much as possible.

“Things are not great overall – meaning we are as impacted [by Covid] as the rest of the community,” said Kostas Kalaitzidis, spokesman for the Orange County Superior Court.

“We still keep asking people to use their masks whenever they have to come in. But please, please take advantage of our online and remote appearance resources so that we can help minimize this new wave of Covid.”

As for why the courts haven’t moved all proceedings to remote, Kalaitzidis noted “it’s a balance between preserving access to justice while keeping the community safe.”

Foley, who was scheduled to hold a clinic Monday to hand out Covid tests, noted the county has been facing shortages of tests.

“Not much we can do until FedEx fixes the shipping delays for PCR test kits or we receive more rapid tests,” Foley wrote.

In preparation for the next phase of the surge, county supervisors are voting Tuesday on a multi-million contract to set up isolation shelters for homeless people, similar to a program earlier in the pandemic meant to prevent outbreaks.

Omicron has quickly overtaken the Delta variant in Orange County – going from less than 1% of Covid cases in early December to just over 80% by the end of the month.

Hospital patients with COVID have increased 470% since early December – rising from 169 patients to 964 as of Monday.

Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at ngerda@voiceofoc.org.

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