Over the recent weekend, the San Francisco Department of Emergency Management advised city residents to not call 911 unless it was for a life-threatening medical emergency due to both the rapid spread of the Omicron COVID-19 variant in the area, as well as medical staff and city workers being stretched thin due to the number of medical workers kept isolated at home due to exposure or testing positive for the virus.
Since late December, the number of COVID cases have skyrocketed in California, with most contracting the omicron variant. While far less lethal than other variants, it has proved to be more contractible. A such, while hospitalizations and deaths are down, the number of daily new positive tests “cases” continues to break records. The total of new number of cases Monday statewide was 56,810.
Cities have seen some of the worst of it, with Los Angeles and San Diego a big factor in the new daily case count. San Francisco has also shown high rates, but has handled this in quite a different way.
Last week, teachers and other school staff members held a “sickout,” with healthy educators staying home to try and force additional COVID-19 measures to be implemented in the city’s school district. By Friday, Mayor London Breed was reporting that hundreds of city workers had to stay home due to COVID-19 and COVID-19 precautions, including over 400 emergency workers.
“We are still seeing staff out due to COVID including: 184 SFPD members 140 SFFD members 122 Muni workers Despite this, we are continuing to provide the critical services our residents deserve,” tweeted Mayor Breed.
We are still seeing staff out due to COVID including:
184 SFPD members
140 SFFD members
122 Muni workers
Despite this, we are continuing to provide the critical services our residents deserve. Thanks to all the frontline workers stepping up to cover shifts to support our City.
— London Breed (@LondonBreed) January 7, 2022
However, less than 24 hours later, the Mayor’s assurance was quickly broken by a San Francisco Department of Emergency Management tweet asking citizens to only call 911 only for life threatening emergencies, due largely to a shortage of medical workers and the need to protect those who remained on duty.
“Please don’t call 911 to ask for a COVID-19 test, or because you have a cold, or minor flu symptoms,” said San Francisco Fire Department Chief Jeannie Nichols in a statement. “We really want to keep our ambulances available for people having a heart attack or strokes. The department has been having about over 400 EMS calls a day in the city for the past several days—about 30% more calls than average.”
In a similar vein, a nurse at a San Francisco hospital told the Globe on Monday, “We’ve lost hundreds in the last few weeks due to having COVID19 or staying home as a precaution. We don’t know when these doctors and nurses will come back. We all have to pick up so much slack now. We’re all on edge because of it.”
With resources now strained, and some, such as police being fanned out more in recent weeks to help deal with the ongoing crime wave, already assigned, many San Franciscans expressed growing concern on Monday that there may be a delay in getting needed emergency services.
“Being told not to call an ambulance except for life-threatening injuries is a dangerous thing to do,” said Frank Ma, a former law enforcement official who now works as a security advisor for businesses in San Francisco and cities in the Peninsula, to the Globe on Monday. “How do people know if something is non-threatening? Many times it is not clear. It’s crazy we’re at this point now, but the city isn’t allowing everyone fully an emergency service now It’s shameful.”
While the 911 request isn’t mandatory, it is currently unknown just how far any kind of denial or enforcement could go.