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Emergency services in North Central Florida slammed after record high responses

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
Christopher Will
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

Using emergency services to get tested for COVID was a main factor for the 2021 increase in the region, managers say.

Alachua County emergency medical personnel responded to a record number of incidents in 2021, over 2,000 more than its next highest count in 2018.

Sumter County Fire Rescue witnessed a similar trend. And in Marion County, Ocala Health, which includes five freestanding emergency rooms and two hospitals, is now searching for more nurses to serve the ever-increasing number of patients.

Alachua County Fire Rescueresponded to 44,441 incidents last year. The increase in calls in 2021 can be attributed to many factors. Those in charge of managing emergency services across North Central Florida said using emergency services to get tested for COVID was a main factor. With every new variant, more and more people have wanted to go to the hospital to see if they are sick, Florida Department of Health administrator in Alachua County Paul Myers said.

“Driving a lot of calls right now is people wanting to get tested,” Myers said. “People calling rescue to get tested is a gross misuse of emergency services.”

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

ACFR Emergency Medical Services Chief Michael Cowart manages the crews that respond to these calls. He said the rise in call load puts the community’s health at risk because the hospitals don’t have enough room.

“It has a real long-term effect because once the hospitals start getting to capacity,” he said. “They have to shut down elective surgeries just to be able to have enough beds.” Cowart said one procedure called a cardiac ablation, which helps restore a regular heartbeat, is sometimes considered elective even though, without that surgery, a patient could go into cardiac arrest. He said elective surgeries are “still vital to that patient’s health.”

The high number of calls means emergency medical services are constantly out responding, which means the truck is completely unavailable until it has completed that call. This causes delayed response to other locations where patients are sometimes facing serious and life-threatening medical emergencies. Just last month, ACFR added an additional rescue unit to compensate for the rising call load.

Myers said a delayed response time for emergencies like a stroke or cardiac arrest can lead to a more severe outcome. He said those experiencing symptoms should not hesitate to get help.

“Delayed care equates to no care at all,” Myers said.

Since vaccinations have become readily available in the United States, hospital visits and calls for emergency services have increased across north central Florida.

“If you’re having trouble breathing, you need to call 911 and those most at risk regardless of vaccination status that are symptomatic need to get tested,” he said.

Sumter County Fire Chief Rob Hanson said he saw a spike in 2021 when it came to calls for emergency services just as emergency personnel in Alachua County did. He said when vaccines became available, people started trying to go to the hospital a lot more. In Sumter County, almost 80% of the total population is fully vaccinated, according to CDC data.

The number of responses in 2021 represents a drastic change from 2020.

With the onset of COVID-19 in 2020, Alachua County saw a decrease in emergency department visits. It was a trend seen across the United States.

With so much still unknown, people stayed home and did less physical activity that would put them at risk of minor traumas. This decreased activity compounded on top of a fear of getting sick at the hospital caused emergency department visits to decline in 2020.

According to the CDC, emergency department visits were down about 42% across the country at the start of the coronavirus pandemic. The CDC said the proportion of infectious disease cases was nearly four times higher than 2019.

Richard Petrik, the Ocala Health Emergency Department Medical Director, said visits to the emergency department were down in parts of Marion County by about 20% in 2020.

Petrik said the fluctuation of emergency response calls from 2020, at an unusual low compared to a relative uptick in 2021, has had an ongoing impact on staffing in hospitals where administrative officials were forced to make drastic changes.

He said that emergency departments in Ocala determine the number of employees they keep on staff by looking at the average number of daily visitors. When that number dropped in 2020, Ocala Health was forced to let people go.

With the patient numbers rising again in 2021, Petrik said Ocala Health is at “normal plus,” and now looks to hire even more staff than it had before the pandemic.

The surge in call volume has impacted those on the front line. From physical exhaustion to risking their physical health by serving patients, the spike in calls intensified the strain on healthcare workers.

ACFR Rescue Lt. Ryan Olding works at Station 23, which is one of the busiest stations in Alachua County. Station 23 responded to 4,226 calls in 2021, nearly 1,600 more than the median responses per rescue unit in the county.

“Secondary to helping the citizens and visitors is helping us,” he said. “When you’re running such a high volume of calls, that’s no sleep, and that can contribute to a number of things.”

With the COVID-19 pandemic still looming, personnel remain slammed by medical emergencies. The high volume not only keeps workers busy, but it also puts them at risk of burnout.

“Responders are citizens and humans themselves and can get sick on top of getting busy, and we ask people to work more and lend ourselves to more burnout in the name of being there for the public,” Hansen said.

Hanson said science has come a long way in understanding the pandemic. He said to trust the system and call emergency services when help is seriously needed.