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‘Use 911 sparingly.’ Florida and Tennessee officials warn ambulance and emergency services are overworked due to Covid-19 surge

In Brevard County, Florida, Fire Rescue Chief Mark Schollmeyer said ambulances are taking longer because they’re not able to hand off patients to hospital staff as quickly because many emergency rooms are already full.

County officials are asking that residents “use 9-1-1 sparingly for non-emergent issues and to save the ambulances and ER trips for those who urgently need those services,” Schollmeyer said in a statement on Monday.

“Just being COVID positive but asymptomatic does not always make it a life-threatening emergent condition requiring a trip to the ER,” the chief added. “We ask people to take advantage of your primary care physician, telemedicine or urgent care and leave emergency room and ambulance trips for those with life threatening or serious emergencies.”

Brevard’s seven-day average for new Covid-19 cases jumped nearly 10% while new hospitalization admissions increased by nearly 15% this week, according to CDC data.

Brevard County Emergency Director John Scott said in the Monday statement that all three hospital systems in the county are “over capacity and continue to deal with a strong surge in patients.”

“Hospital emergency rooms are seeing comparable surges in patients with COVID-19 symptoms, though not all of those visiting the ER have an emergency situation,” Scott said. “That creates safety concerns for real emergencies, such as traffic accident-related trauma patients, heart attack victims or others needing emergency treatment.”

The grim warning comes as Covid-19 infections, fueled by the dangerous Delta variant, are surging again across the country and patients with the virus — most of whom are unvaccinated — are again filling hospitals. Resources are again stretched thin and healthcare workers are being pushed to their breaking point, tending to a growing number of Covid-19 patients during what many Americans thought would be the summer that marked a return to normalcy. But with only roughly 50.4% of the US fully vaccinated, the virus has roared back and prompted mask mandates and new restrictions all over again, meant to curb its spread.

In Memphis, Tennessee, fire department chief Gina Sweat said the city’s EMS system is overworked and could face its busiest month in history in August.

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“At this point in the pandemic, our system is very, very stressed. Our first responders are running on fumes,” Sweat said during a Thursday news conference. “They have been there every day, fighting every step of the way.”

CDC data shows that the average of new Covid-19 cases surged more than 20% in Shelby County, home to Memphis, while new hospital admissions for Covid cases were up more than 24% this week.

In the first 11 days of this month, call takers for the Memphis EMS fielded nearly 5,200 calls, averaging more than 460 daily, Sweat said.

“Because the call volume, we have a system that is being overworked and its not built to handle this type of call volume,” the chief said. “With that additional utilization, there’s times when you may call for an ambulance and we may not have one available.”

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“So many times a day, our system, we have no ambulances available, but we do have the ability to continue to send engines or trucks to stabilize patients. What this does mean is, that we may have a delayed response time to your home if you call for 911.”

Much like in Brevard County, emergency rooms in Memphis are full too, which means that it takes longer for ambulances to drop off patients.

“Our average, this month is an hour and a half to get a patient unloaded in a hospital,” Sweat said.

“If you ride an ambulance to the hospital, you’re not going to get seen any faster in that emergency department, you don’t get any privilege, you will be triaged and you will be placed in the waiting room and seen based on your condition and the rate that they can see you — so don’t call an ambulance for a ride to the hospital, it’s not going to help you,” Sweat said.


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