A significant increase in COVID 911 calls is stretching Kern County’s ambulance services thin. To address growing ambulance shortages, Kern County Public Health Services is preparing to limit the calls to which emergency medical personnel respond.
This week, the county plans to move to the second level of its surge plan, a move which stops ambulances from responding to “low acuity,” or non-emergency, 911 calls during peak periods of activity.
“COVID-19 is prevalent in the system right now, and it is definitely having an effect on our system,” said Jeff Fariss, Emergency Management System program manager for Public Health. “Unfortunately, we have to make some changes in how we operate to handle the surge.”
The county last implemented Level 2 of its EMS System Surge Plan in December, when coronavirus cases were in the midst of rising to the highest point recorded during the pandemic. Fariss said conditions in Kern County are now “almost identical” to the last surge.
The volume of 911 calls has increased 36 percent over the last six months. Ambulance decontamination, which must be conducted every time an ambulance transports a COVID or suspected COVID patient, have also skyrocketed.
In June, the county reported 24 ambulance decontaminations. The number spiked to 128 in July and has already reached 315 this month.
Decontaminations take ambulances off the street for at least an hour, and potentially longer. An average of 14 now take place each day in Kern County, limiting the number of ambulances available at a time when they are needed more and more.
In addition, ambulance crews are now being forced to wait at local hospitals until an open bed becomes available. The county experienced a 246 percent increase in ambulances waiting two to three hours at hospitals and a 187 percent increase in ambulances waiting more than three hours in August, according to KCPHS.
The wait times mirror similar issues the county faced during the first and second coronavirus waves, when local hospitals could not handle the influx of new patients passing through their doors.
While waiting, patients sit in ambulance gurneys in the hallways of hospitals until a bed opens up. EMS crews must wait with them, further straining resources.
The twin bottlenecks of decontamination and hospital overload have triggered the county’s entrance into Level 2.
“During times of extraordinary stress on our system, ensuring that those needing the most critical services are prioritized is of the utmost importance,” Brynn Carrigan, director of Public Health, said in a news release.
Despite the move, EMS crews will still respond to low-level calls when possible. As long as three ambulances are available in a service provider’s largest metropolitan response zone, 911 calls will be answered as usual. If not, dispatchers will follow up with callers with instructions.
The county has also contracted with Pro Safety and Rescue Inc. to help ease the burden on ambulance services.
“We don’t just leave the patients hanging,” Fariss said. “We have steps in place to make sure that they are low acuity and help them get whatever assistance they need.”
The last time the county entered Level 2 of its surge plan, it worked “perfectly” to reduce pressure on ambulance services, Fariss added.
The county must now hope the plan works just as well despite a tired workforce that has already survived two surges.
"This is their third surge, so they are pretty tired out there running calls," Fariss said. "They are professionals and they are doing their absolute best in giving 110 percent."