County, EMS companies face impact of pandemic on ambulance services

GENESEE COUNTY — As the COVID-19 crisis grinds through 2021, local EMS companies are feeling the strain of the pandemic on emergency services and ambulance availability.

Starting last October, the county began witnessing a critical shortage in available ambulance units, along with an increase in emergency response times. Bruce Trevithick, Executive Director for the Genesee County Medical Control Authority, said that while ambulance shortages have been sporadic throughout the pandemic, the problem has become more prevalent in recent months

“Since Oct. 31, we’ve had approximately 17 instances where we had three or fewer ambulances available to respond to 911 calls,” he said. “At one point, we had no ambulances available, and 911 Dispatch had to stack or queue those calls until ambulances were freed up.”

Trevithick said that due to COVID-19 protocols, ambulances must be decontaminated after each run. In many cases, this has caused emergency response delays for EMS units.

Jeff Lewis, Vice President of Operations for Swartz Ambulance in Flint, said that his paramedics wipe down and disinfect their ambulances before getting back onto the street—a process that can take 30 to 45 minutes. They also use ultraviolet light at the end of every shift to kill any remaining bacteria.

“Transportation may also take longer for our drivers if they drop off patients at the emergency room, only to find that the hospital is overwhelmed with patients,” Lewis said. “And if we’re bringing in someone with COVID, then that person has to be segregated from other patients in the ER. That slows the process down.”

In addition to dealing with longer turnaround times, paramedics are faced with the daily risk of getting exposed to COVID- 19 and having to quarantine— making it more difficult for EMS agencies to field full crews.

Joseph Karlichek, CEO of STAT EMS, said that several of his paramedics tested positive for COVID-19 in 2020 and had to quarantine.

“We are fortunate that none of our staff have had serious side effects of this virus and those who have been symptomatic have recovered well and are back on the job, serving our community,” he said. “We mandate our staff be tested weekly to ensure we keep a cap on any outbreaks within the organization. Our goal is to make sure that we are catching infections early and controlling outbreaks before they can happen.”

Karlichek said that around 35 percent of STAT’s emergency calls have been either COVID-related or potentially related to the virus since the pandemic began.

Meanwhile, STAT and Swartz paramedics have witnessed an increase in the number of patients who are declining to go to the hospital after receiving assistance from paramedics—due to fears about potentially catching COVID-19.

To help alleviate the burden on local EMS companies, the Genesee County Medical Control Authority—which oversees county EMS operations—is working on ways to reduce emergency response times and free up more ambulances. For example, Central Dispatch will direct only one ambulance to structure fire calls rather than sending two EMS units and redirect EMS teams from Tier 2 (non-life-threatening) calls to more serious Tier 1 calls if necessary.

In addition, the county is pursuing grants to purchase decontamination equipment for local hospitals. This would allow paramedics to clean their rigs after dropping off patients at the ER, without having to return to their base for disinfecting.

The Genesee County Sheriff’s Office Paramedic division is also helping EMS companies with emergency responses, particularly by handling accident or crime-related emergency situations before an EMS unit arrives.