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Overcrowded L.A. ERs Turn Away Ambulances

LOS ANGELES -- A wave of patients suffering from bad colds and flu-like symptoms is flooding emergency departments across Los Angeles County, causing ambulances to be turned away and wait times of up to six hours in some places, officials said Thursday.

Northridge Hospital Medical Center has seen a 10 percent to 15 percent increase in patient visits in the last week, mostly from those suffering from respiratory infections, said Dr. Stephen Jones, the hospital's medical director of emergency services.

Jones said the bump in patient visits is normal, though this year's increase has begun a little later than usual.

"Typically we tend to see this right around the holidays," he said. "We're seeing some influenza and more upper respiratory infections. But so far, it's not as bad as in past years."

Meanwhile, patient visits at Providence Holy Cross in Mission Hills has seen a 27 percent increase since the end of December, spokesman Dan Boyle said.

County health officials are concerned about the trend because more hospitals have increased their requests for ambulance traffic to be diverted from emergency departments, according to the Los Angeles County Emergency Medical Services Agency, which tracks ER saturation.

"Ambulance diversion rates are one indicator of how crowded Los Angeles County emergency departments are at any given time," officials said in a prepared statement.

From Dec. 30 to Jan. 5, the countywide ambulance diversion rate increased from 12 percent to 19 percent. From Jan. 6 to 12, the diversion rate increased to 21 percent.

Patients are being urged to visit their physicians -- not the ER -- for treatment. "Patients tend to flood local emergency rooms at this time of year for symptoms that can most often be more quickly and appropriately treated by a primary care doctor," said Dr. Bruce Chernof, director and chief medical officer for the county Department of Health Services.

Meanwhile, public health officials are reminding parents that over-the-counter cough and cold medications should not be used to treat infants and children under 2.

In October, the federal Food and Drug Administration urged pharmaceutical companies and distributors to pull several products off the shelves after more than 1,500 cases of bad reactions to pediatric cough and cold medicines were reported to the agency over the last two years. Many cases resulted from accidental overdoses.

susan.abram@dailynews.com

818-713-3664

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