Montgomery Co. ambulance service could be disrupted by crowded ERs

While around 9% of Montgomery County Fire and EMS staff quarantined, or are sick or injured, officials told WTOP it is not affecting service. But, they said, crowded emergency rooms in the last two weeks could eventually lead to prolonged ambulance service.

“All six of the ERs are saying to me, ‘We are seeing an unprecedented number of people walking into the ER, and wanting care,’” but they are not being admitted into rooms, Montgomery Fire Battalion Chief Ben Kaufman told WTOP.

He said people are running to the emergency room wanting a COVID test or presenting with mild or moderate COVID symptoms, which could be cared for at home.

Kaufman said long lines and a lack of appointments at county testing facilities may be pushing folks to visit hospitals, and “they think the emergency department it might get them tested faster.” 

“So those ER numbers are impacting the ER’s ability to see an ambulance when they come in because [there are] no beds in the ER because they’re all taken up by these patients that are walking into the waiting room.”

It has increased the time it takes for an ambulance to admit a patient into the hospital or drop time. The shape increase started about two weeks ago.

“If unchecked, and we just let ambulances stand at the hospital for six hours, eventually, the next 911 call could potentially be waiting for an ambulance to come from farther away,” said Kaufman. “We’re never going to say no, we can’t come. But it could result in longer wait times for an ambulance now.” 

Kaufman urged that anyone in need of a test-to-stay away from emergency rooms. He said those with mild symptoms should call a doctor’s office or visit an urgent care clinic rather than the ER.

“If you know you have COVID, and you’re not having chest pain, or you’re not having shortness of breath, and all you’re going to the hospital for is to confirm the test, maybe you did a rapid test you want a PCR test — from the public health side of things, that’s not necessary.” 

These long drop times come to a taxed credit of EMS employees and volunteers. The 9% of staff that is unable to work is nearly double the usual number on a day-to-day basis. Four to 5% of staff are usually not available to work due to time off or injuries.

“We’re at a point that we had to make some decisions about, about staffing and department,” said Kaufman.

Last week, the county temporarily redeployed staff from the Clarksburg Aerial Tower ladder truck and a heavy rescue unit for the Laytonsville Rescue Squad.

“They’re strategically chosen, where there’s plenty of coverage with other apparatus’ around.”

And while the department sees some stresses, there is cause for optimism.

He said crews are not seeing patients getting nearly as sick from COVID this winter surge compared to last.

“We saw a much sharper increase of corresponding increase in patients who had breathing problems, saw an uptick in number of cardiac arrests, we saw a higher number of patients with hypoxia, low oxygen levels. We’re not seeing that with this.”

He credited the county’s high vaccination rate, which showed 85% of residents had at least one dose of the vaccine, and the fact that this variant tends to cause milder illness.

“But people are definitely getting sick from this, and you don’t want it,” said Kaufman.  

Luke Lukert

Since joining WTOP Luke Lukert has held just about every job in the newsroom from producer to web writer and now he works as a full-time reporter. He is an avid fan of UGA football. Go Dawgs!

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