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Ambulance service seeing major impacts amid coronavirus pandemic

Updated: Dec. 15, 2020 at 7:24 PM CST
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - Dispatchers, paramedics and emergency medical technicians all hurry to get you to the ER when you call for an ambulance.

But in the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s now often a “hurry up and wait” situation for patients and the dedicated first responders of the Memphis and Shelby County Fire Departments.

“We had an ambulance at a hospital Joe for as long as eight hours. That’s a very, very long time to be at a hospital,” said Shelby County Fire Department Director Alvin Benson.

Benson and Gina Sweat, Director of Memphis Fire Services say COVID-19 has led to bottlenecks for ambulance crews at ERs.

“We’re used to making a lot of fire calls at this time of year but with COVID and the impact on the ERs and wait times at the hospitals does affect our availability,” said Sweat.

Both fire directors serve on the Memphis-Shelby County COVID-19 Task Force which reviewed the dramatic increase in time ambulance crews are spending at ERs.

“We have to transfer care to the hospital for them to accept that patient,” said Sweat.

But until a hospital accepts a patient, paramedics must stand by with the person needing medical help.

The vast majority still are accepted within an hour. But increasingly, a comparison of wait times to offload patients from July to November 2019 and the same time span this year shows patients and paramedics sometimes wait hours.

In that time frame last year, 1,552 patients and MFD ambulance crews waited one to two hours at an ER. Between July and November this year, that number shot up to 4,043! In 2019, crews rarely waited three or more hours. But that happened hundreds of times this year with MFD crews waiting longer than seven hours 48 times.

″So that could impact some of our actual fire response later on,” said Sweat. “So that’s something we’re struggling with every day. Working to try and get ambulances turned around at the hospitals as fast as we can and get back out on the street.”

What’s the solution?

“I have this great Memphis Fire mask here you know,” said Sweat.

The fire directors say masking up, keeping social distance and washing your hands regularly may save you from COVID-19 and a long wait in an ambulance at the ER.

“There is a lot of non-compliance,” said Benson. “So if there’s non-compliance, by extension, that taxes the ERs, it taxes our ambulance system, our fire trucks. So non-compliance has those consequences that are very important to take seriously because there are finite resources. At the end of the day, there are only so many emergency rooms, there are only so many ICU beds, there are only so many ambulances. There is capacity. We can exceed that capacity.”

The pandemic has affected employees directly in both the Memphis and Shelby County Fire Departments.

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