RIVERSIDE, Calif. -- Because so many flu-ridden people are going to hospitals, the Riverside County (Calif.) Emergency Medical Services Agency has temporarily suspended diverting ambulances from crowded hospitals to less-crowded facilities.
All hospitals in the county except the one in remote Blythe have been hit so hard by the patients surge that none can absorb extra patients, said Bruce Barton, the agency's director.
As of a result, the sick and slightly injured are waiting hours -- sometimes six or eight -- to be seen by a doctor when hospital medical staff determine they do not need immediate attention.
"The sickest patients get seen the fastest," Barton said.
The no-diversion rule went into effect Feb. 15.
San Bernardino County hasn't enacted a similar moratorium, but hospitals are already so crowded that ambulance diversion isn't practical anyway, said Virginia Hastings, executive director of Inland Counties Emergency Medical Agency.
In both counties, ambulances are lining up outside emergency rooms, waiting to unload their patients because there is no room for them, Barton and Hastings said.
"There can be up to 10 ambulance crews waiting to unload," said Dr. Matthew Underwood, an emergency room physician at Riverside Community Hospital.
Walk-in patients can get help faster, Underwood said, if they are willing to take an unmonitored bed and be treated by a physician's assistant rather than by a doctor.
Hastings said there isn't much doctors can do for people with the flu, and treating yourself at home is a good option.
Barton said this year's flu season is not as bad as in 2003 or 2005, but it is driving far more people than normal to emergency rooms.
Two weeks ago, people with flu-like symptoms accounted for almost 20 percent of all visits to emergency rooms in Riverside County, he said.
Hastings said the numbers were similar in San Bernardino County.
The emergency room at Riverside Community Hospital normally might see 150 to 165 people a day but now is seeing 200 or more daily, Barton said.
Tracy Dallarda, spokeswoman for the hospital, said 225 patients came to the hospital's emergency room Monday.
Riverside County Regional Medical Center in Moreno Valley averages about 215 emergency room visits per day but is seeing 270 patients a day, Barton said. One recent day, 303 patients showed up, setting a record, he said.
If patients don't have an actual emergency, they might want to consider going to their doctor or to an urgent-care clinic, Barton said.
And if they come to an emergency room without a medical emergency, they should be prepared for long waits, Underwood said.
"So yeah, bring a good book," he said.
The prohibition on diverting ambulances will be lifted in Riverside County once the situation allows it, Barton said.
The larger issue, he and Hastings both said, is that the two counties have grown rapidly but no new hospitals have been built.Reach Doug Haberman at 951-368-9644 or dhaberman@PE.com