A growing number of COVID cases across the state is putting additional strain on our health care system — and it’s spilling over to emergency medical services.
Hospitals and emergency medical service workers are encouraging the public to avoid emergency departments unless it is a life-threatening situation to help hospitals open beds for paramedics.
Staffing shortages are everywhere, but they’re more of a concern for departments that provide life-saving assistance. About half a dozen emergency responders have been sick in Durham in recent weeks, a slight increase on last year.
Transporting sick patients has always been important work, but now more than ever, emergency responders face a number of challenges.
“What we have noticed is that we have had an increase in the number of our employees who have either tested positive or become symptomatic. Probably more in the last three to four weeks than in the previous five to seven months,” said County Durham Paramedic Chief Mark Lockhart.
Records between January 1 and January 10 show an 81% increase in the number of patients with COVID or flu-like symptoms compared to the same period last year. An overall 14% increase in call volume and a 16% increase in the number of patients transported for a different reason who then test positive in hospital.
For this reason, Durham has two FEMA units that help manage 5-8 calls per 12 hour shift.
“Certainly we are trying to do what we can not to contribute to this hospital capacity issue, but unfortunately at this point, just with the number of patients and the number of calls, we are all quite stretched,” said Lockhart said.
Orange County has had approximately nine staff members due to COVID over the past seven to 10 days.
“This is a significant increase in absences, but so far we are processing most of the vacancies created,” said Kirby Sanders, director of Orange County Emergency Medical Services.
“We have had a few occasions over the past week where this has resulted in all of our trucks being understaffed. We depend on temporary staff and overtime to fill these slots when they arise. It is certainly concerning and we are monitoring closely,” he added.
In Wake County, they are not actively tracking who has COVID, but there are 70 general vacancies for full-time employees and another 30 virtual vacancies for various reasons.
“These are employees who are off the schedule for a reason other than vacation or daily sick leave. This includes military leave, parental leave, workers compensation, COVID quarantine, light duty and federal deployment,” said Brian Brooks, Deputy Chief of Wake County Emergency Medical Services.
According to Brooks, they take units out of service daily, with that number varying from day to day. They were below five on several occasions and above 10 on many other occasions.
Wake County also receives an average of 350 calls per day. FEMA units are also assisting departments in Wake County.
“We certainly learned a few things about staffing spikes and trying to look at data around call volume by day of the week as well as time of day and making sure that we have the appropriate EMS aside for those times,” Lockhart said.
“I would certainly like us to get around the immediate threat and definitely go back to a more robust system that’s not as taxed by call volume and with absent or sick employees,” he added.
Durham FEMA units are helping out for another week. Then FEMA will reassess whether she should deploy to another area where the needs are greater or stay in Durham for another two weeks.
FEMA is scheduled to serve counties statewide through February.