Alabama EMS workers battle Omicron, staffing shortages and emergency room waits

Local News

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — An increasing number of COVID cases throughout the state is putting added pressure on our health care system and it’s trickling down to emergency medical services.

Hospitals and EMS workers are encouraging the public to avoid emergency departments unless it’s a life-threatening situation to help hospitals open up beds for ambulance crews.

However, as the Omicron variant surges, medics are finding it harder than ever to avoid catching the virus themselves as they help those in need.

“In some cases, we’re seeing workforce shortages up to 10-20 percent of being out with COVID related symptoms and or testing positive. We’re left to backfill those positions through overtime and other incentives to keep the right number of ambulance hours on the road,” said Brett Jovanovich with Global Medical Response, Inc.

To help keep ambulance services fully staffed amid the COVID surge, Jovanovich says recruitment efforts are a top priority with competitive wages and added incentives for current employees.

“We will pay them a wage to go through school, we will pay for school and when they come out, they are trained, and licensed emergency medical technicians, and they are able to get on the ambulances and run transport,” said Jovanovich.

Limited staffing is not the only hurdle ambulance services are currently facing, they are also left waiting hours at hospitals due to lack of emergency beds.

“Prior to COVID, it would take 15 to 20 minutes. Now it’s taking upward of two, three, or four hours and the negative impact on that is it ties the ambulance resources up at the emergency department and it delays those resources to be able to return back to the communities that they serve,” said Brent Dierking with Northstar EMS Inc.

One way the community can help alleviate the stress EMS workers are facing is to be aware of when it’s necessary to dial 911.

“You know if you’re just sick and it’s not a medical emergency, those are the times when you need to pick up the phone and call your physician or go to a clinic, we don’t need to be tying up emergency departments that are taking care of real critical patients,” said Dierking.

Another reminder is to not dial 911 for COVID testing or if you have mild COVID symptoms. Instead, contact your primary care doctor or go to an urgent care facility for those services.

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