Ambulances impacted by COVID
At peak times during the COVID-19 pandemic, as case numbers rose and filled hospitals, ambulance personnel reported long wait times for transport patients getting into emergency rooms.
Long wait periods during COVID-19 spikes tied up ambulances and emergency medical crews with patients on stretchers waiting in hallways sometimes for hours, said Freddie Parker director of operations for Pafford EMS in Ridgeland.
“Waiting in the hallway with the patient on the stretcher, just waiting,” Parker said.
Gov. Tate Reeves announced earlier this month he was ending Mississippi’s COVID-19 state of emergency citing declining infection rates and increasing vaccination rates.
The declining COVID-19 infection rates are welcome news to those on the frontlines of the state’s medical and healthcare systems, and some in the field said they are starting to see a break in the hospital backlog.
“With more than 3,000,000 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine having been administered in Mississippi and with COVID-19 infections and resulting hospitalizations being effectively managed, it’s time to end the State of Emergency,” Reeves said in making the announcement. “The additional eight-day extension will provide state agencies with ample time to prepare for the State of Emergency’s termination.”
The COVID-19 pandemic began in March 2020 and, during the past 20 months, has claimed the lives of some 10,000 Mississippians and stressed the medical and healthcare system, including ambulance services and emergency departments.
“If we take patients into a hospital, there is a significant issue with placement when we get into the hospital, causing the ambulance crew to have to stay at the hospital, sometimes, for very extended periods of time, up to hours,” said Parker.
COVID-19 is the main factor in the wait times, Parker said, adding the most recent Delta variant spike had caused problems among emergency medical workers reminiscent of earlier days of the pandemic.
“COVID was a large factor in it,” Parker said, “and the staffing shortage that the hospitals are facing creates a bottleneck, if you will, in the emergency room. It makes it difficult for them to admit patients to the hospital, and there is a lack of staff and a lack of available beds.”
Staffing is the No. 1 issue contributing to the ambulance backlogs, said Dr. Joe Johnsey, chief medical officer of Relias Healthcare that contracts with hospitals, including Forrest General Hospital in Hattiesburg, to operate emergency departments.
Johnsey sees both sides of the issue. He is also the director for AAA Ambulance service that operates ambulances in Hattiesburg and other communities in the southwest part of the state.
“Staffing is probably the No. 1 issue,” Johnsey said. “The staff beds here in the hospital.”
Johnsey said that peak times during the COVID-19 pandemic required drastic measures to fill gaps at overtaxed hospitals in the state.
“We’ve seen things in the state like the Department of Defense coming out and MEMA helping out the way they would with a hurricane coming onshore in a way that we just haven’t seen before,” Johnsey said. “It has just been really loud and clear that that is an issue.”
In addition to the short staffing, COVID-19 patients require in-bed attention longer than the average hospital patient.
Another issue that is always a problem is people seeking medical attention in emergency rooms for problems that aren’t necessarily emergencies because they do not have medical insurance.
Johnsey said such misuse of emergency rooms was less of a problem during the pandemic because many patients did not want to risk being exposed to COVID-19 or were concerned about overtaxing the hospitals.
“We’ve seen patients who have had strokes or heart attacks who have waited way too long to get attention for those things, much more frequently in the last 18 months than we ever would see before,” Johnsey said.
Ever since the Delta variant peak began to subside in recent weeks, both physicians said the ambulance backlog at hospitals and emergency rooms is not as much of an issue as it was at the heights of the pandemic.
“It has gotten better,” Johnsey said of recent weeks. “As the pandemic ramps up, that’s when it gets worse. When hospitals fill up, it is really difficult because then there is a lot more transporting patients around, so that is when it magnifies. It has started to return to nearly normal, but it lags a good month or so behind whenever our COVID numbers tend to turn down.”
Parker said that in addition to hospital staff leaving the profession during the pandemic, emergency medical workers have left, causing a shortage of ambulance crews.
“EMS staffing has also taken quite a hit,” Parker said. “This is global for healthcare, and you know EMS staffing has taken a big hit as well. The demand for service is high and has gotten higher with COVID. That can contribute to burnout of EMS employees or hospital employees.”
Both medical professionals said they are hopeful the COVID-19 infection rates will stabilize and fall but are ready if another wave comes.
“When we see that spike up in COVID numbers, we need to go back to trying to prevent that spread as best we can,” Johnsey said. “When numbers are not bad, we can relax a little bit and feel more comfortable.”
Johnsey encouraged people to get vaccinated for COVID-19.
“Vaccines are really safe and are really effective prevention methods for severe disease, and monoclonal antibodies are a great way if you do contract it, to also prevent that severe disease,” Johnsey said.
Both professionals encourage people to seek medical attention if they need it.
“If you have concerns that you think you have an emergency, we still want people to feel free to come to the emergency department,” Johnsey said. “If you think you can safely transport yourself to the emergency department, certainly, that is a big help to the pre-hospital folks if you have the ability to do that but if you have concerns about your ability to do that, we are still here and still want to do that job that we signed on for.
“We appreciate the public trying to help those in the emergency department and in the hospital and the pre-hospital world, but we are here to try and help take care of you. If you think you need us, don’t feel like you can’t call on us just because of struggles going on in the healthcare system. That is still our mission, and the goal is to take care of the public.”