EMS response times lengthening as COVID cases skyrocket

Posted at 10:42 PM, Jan 02, 2022
and last updated 2022-01-02 23:19:07-05

SYKESVILLE, Md. — COVID cases continue to skyrocket, with over 2,500 hospitalizations reported Sunday. Fire departments are being pushed to the brink like they’ve never been pushed before.

The Sykesville-Freedom District Fire Department, like many across the state, is dealing with much longer response times because hospitals are overwhelmed with patients and it is having a very real impact on public safety.

“We’re tired. We’re beat. We’re frustrated but we show up,” said Bill Rehkopf, spokesman for the Sykesville-Freedom District Fire Department. “I would use the analogy that if you’ve ever been on a bucking bronco, you gotta ride for 8 seconds. Well, we are only about 3 or 4 seconds into this and we’ve got to hang on for another 5 or 6.”

They are hanging on as the number of people, COVID and non-COVID-related, using the EMS system and hospitals continues to increase.

“We just have an overwhelming number of people wanting to be seen in emergency rooms who shouldn’t be; who don’t need to be seen,” said Rehkopf.

Crews now spend countless hours with patients at hospitals because there are no beds available. It happened just this weekend with a patient who needed oxygen.

“Normally it’s a patient we take into the ER, we hand them off to the ER team, we do our work and we are back in service within about 30 minutes. That patient spent 3.5 hours on our cot in the emergency department because they did not have the room,” said Rehkopf.

The entire time, that crew can’t respond to other calls. Overcrowded ERs also mean in some cases, EMS personnel will have to take patients to other hospitals further away.

It’s not just a problem in Carroll County.

Baltimore County EMS crews are now transporting non-life threatening patients by fire truck because there haven’t been ambulances available.

Harford County Fire and EMS crews are also stretched thin, spending hours waiting with patients for beds to open up at Upper Chesapeake Medical Center.

All this ultimately impacts 911 callers, making some wait longer for a response.

It’s a domino effect Rehkopf said can be somewhat mitigated.

He said there’s a misconception that if you’re taken by ambulance to the ER, that you will be seen quicker. But instead, patients are treated by the level of severity.

“You may get triaged in the waiting room to find out that you’ve got a cough and you have sit in the waiting room for 5 or 6 hours,” said Rehkopf.

He’s asking the community to be smart about why you’re calling 911.

“See if you can’t contact your primary care physician. If not, go to an urgent care but you want to use 911 as a last resort,” said Rehkopf.

The Baltimore City Fire Department is also urging people to only call 911 if necessary.