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Coronavirus Causing Delays At Pinellas ERs, Keeping Ambulances Off Streets

Man getting a COVID vaccine
Pinellas County Department of Health
Dr. Ulyee Choe, director of the Department of Health in Pinellas, told commissioners on Aug. 10, 2021, that the distribution of vaccines has grown by more than 100% over the past three weeks.

About 50 ambulances a day are having to wait over an hour to offload patients because emergency rooms do not have the space or staff for new patients, officials said.

The coronavirus continues to cause significant delays at Pinellas County’s emergency rooms and is keeping ambulances from responding to other calls, health officials told county commissioners on Tuesday.

Between 40 and 50 ambulances a day are having to wait over an hour at area emergency rooms to offload patients, said Dr. Angus Jameson, medical director for Pinellas County Emergency Medical Services.

The process, which usually takes about 15 minutes, is being delayed by emergency rooms that have no space or staff for new patients, Jameson said.

The delays are taking needed ambulances off the streets and Pinellas EMS has responded by increasing the number of trucks on the road, Jameson said. But, he said, they are running out of capacity.

“The EMS system is clearly in a mode where we are pulling out every available contingency to continue providing excellent care to the citizens but we truly are using every available resource and running out of any further surge capacity,” Jameson said.

Most of the patients being transported are between 30 and 50 years old and are seeking care because they are having difficulty breathing, he said.

About 30 percent of the calls Pinellas EMS responds to are for COVID-19 symptoms, up from less than 10 percent, Jameson said.

“Our overall transport volume at EMS is up significantly,” he said. “We are right now where we would normally be in the peak of busy spring season and at this time of year we should be nowhere near there historically.”

On Tuesday, there were 15,169 people being treated for COVID-19 in Florida’s hospitals, an increase of 1,555 over Monday. It’s the ninth straight day that the state reached a record high in hospitalizations. Of those hospitalized, 3,050 were being treated in ICU beds, which was about 47 percent of the staffed ICU beds in Florida.

“The rapid nature of this surge, the rapid increase in the number of patients and the fact that we’ve got more patients needing medical care from COVID than at any time previously during this entire pandemic is truly putting a significant strain on both the EMS system and the hospital system,” Jameson said.

Coronavirus cases and positivity rates are also at all-time highs in Pinellas County, Dr. Ulyee Choe, director of the Department of Health in Pinellas told commissioners during the same meeting. Pinellas County has had about 800 cases per day over the past seven days and a positivity rate of 16.2 percent.

Pediatric cases are also up. In June, All Children’s Hospital saw 12 pediatric patients. In July it was 181 and so far in August, they have seen 90 pediatric patients, Choe said.

Some health care systems have run out of ventilators, he said, and the region has run out of a machine that helps patients with the most severe cases. The ECMO machine, is a cardiopulmonary bypass for severely damaged lungs.

One bright spot from his report is that vaccine rates have grown by more than 100 percent over the past three weeks.

In mid-July Pinellas county was averaging about 4,500 people vaccinated per week and over the past two weeks that number has jumped to over 10,000, Choe said.

That trend will need to continue if cases are going to come down.

“If we ever want to see this perpetual cycle of COVID waves end, we all need to do our part and get vaccinated,” he said.

County administrator Barry Burton echoed that sentiment.

He said officials were not there to ask county leaders for any action or to pass any mandates during the meeting. They were outlining a community health issue, which has a solution, Burton said.

“It is impacting our health care system and we have a solution in our vaccination process,” he said. “And there’s plenty of vaccines available.”

Correction: A previous version of this story reported an incorrect number for Pinellas County's daily average coronavirus case count. That figure has been corrected.

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