California hospitals turn to pandemic overflow tents amid flu uptick

At least three hospitals in Southern California are using overflow tents outside of their emergency rooms that were set up throughout the COVID-19 pandemic to help manage an influx of patients with respiratory illnesses, including the flu, The San Diego Union-Tribune reported Nov. 11. 

Scripps Memorial Hospital in Encinitas, Jacobs Medical Center at UC San Diego Health in La Jolla and Sharp Grossmont Hospital in Mesa are all making use of the tents to manage an increase of patients with respiratory illness.

"Overflow tents outside the emergency departments at Scripps Memorial Hospital Encitas and Scripps Mercy Hospital Chula Vista have been set up throughout the pandemic for the last couple of years, and they have been used periodically as needed," a spokesperson for San Diego-based Scripps Health said in a statement sent to Becker's Nov. 15. "In recent weeks, tents at both sites have been used again as those emergency departments have become busier, including caring for patients with influenza like illness." 

The tents at San Diego-based Sharp HealthCare are being used to test patients with flu-like symtpoms for a variety of respiratory viruse, a spokesperson told City News Service. 

This as the percentage of ER patients with flu symptoms in San Diego County has steadily risen over the last few weeks, with about 9 percent showing flu symptoms for the week ending Nov. 6, according to data cited by the Union-Tribune. Across Scripps hospitals and clinics, 1,695 patients have tested positive for the flu since Sept. 1, up from 471 over the same period last year. Fourteen flu patients were hospitalized across Scripps' five hospitals as of Nov. 14, according to City News Service. 

While staff members have largely been able to keep up with the emergency department demand, hospital officials are preparing to operate with a slimmer staff in the coming weeks. 

"Right now we're OK, but I do worry, as we get into Thanksgiving, Christmas as we have flu and COVID-19, about the sick calls," Ghazala Sharieff, MD, chief medical officer of acute care operations and clinical excellence at San Diego-based Scripps Health, told the Union-Tribune. "We're trying our best to get ahead as much as we can now and get as many scheduled surgeries done as we can." 

California is among nine states and regions that reported high flu activity for the week ending Nov. 5. An additional 16 states and regions reported very high levels of flu activity. 

Children's hospitals and emergency departments across the U.S. are also grappling with a surge in respiratory syncytial virus. UPMC Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh also recently set up a tent outside its ED to manage an increased volume of patients. 

It is still too early to tell whether the respiratory viruses' early arrival will fizzle by Christmas or persist through February, according to health experts.

Editor's note: This story was updated Nov. 16 to clarify that the hospitals have used the overflow tents periodically since they were set up throughout the pandemic, and that they were not stood up specifically to handle an influx of flu patients.

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