TAMPA, Fla. — Florida hospitals are receiving a record number of patients with COVID-19. The weight falling on emergency rooms is now trickling onto extra floors and even outside emergency services.
“We’re seeing unprecedented numbers, unprecedented requests for service,” said Jeremy Fischler the Quality Management Chief with Hillsborough County Fire Rescue. “Our offload times are also unprecedented compared to where they’ve been and the amount of times that facilities are giving us information that they are at capacity is happening much more frequently than we’re used to seeing,” he exclaimed.
A video sent to ABC Action News from an EMT at Brandon Regional Hospital two weeks ago shows the ER hallways filled with patients on stretchers waiting for beds.
“Never in my entire career have I ever seen anything like this,” Andrew Wilson the Chief Medical Officer at Morton Plant North Bay Hospital said when asked about the issue. “My particular ER has 28 beds and a small fast track area. We may have upwards of 40 or 50 patients in that department at a time, because we're so busy. Those patients end up in hallways, other areas, wherever we can provide care, and then of course is unfortunate long waits in the waiting room.”
Brooksville resident Soni Beaumont said her experience in the waiting room at Brooksville Bayfront last week is one she wishes she could forget.
“People were in the hallways in beds and the cough was horrendous, the sound of the cough and the wheezing… It was like out of a movie,” she described.
Beaumont’s 82-year-old mother was experiencing A-fib cardiac issues when they called 911 and got an ambulance.
“She was in that ER for two days, and there were people in beds lined up against the nurses station,” Beaumont said.
Her mother was eventually able to get a bed on the cardiac floor.
“She was in a room with another woman who was a COVID patient, but my mom is vaccinated, and she was about 12 feet away from that woman and there was a curtain in between,” she explained, “And that woman was really much older, she was on a ventilator.”
From Hernando County to Hillsborough County, hospital wait times are creating a ripple effect.
“We’re seeing ambulances now that sometimes wait an hour, hour and a half, two hours, sometimes longer,” Fischler said.
Hillsborough just created a bypass status website for ambulances to find which hospitals they can take patients to.
We followed it from July 28 to August 10 and watched as more and more hospitals enter into critical care and volume bypasses.
“As long as the patient remains on our stretcher, we’re unable to provide the final transfer and then go back in service,” Fischler said.
On August 3 at 2 a.m., more than 10 ERs were on volume bypass at once.
In the last week, we started to see total diverts-- meaning the ER is closed to all EMS.
On August 9 at 10 a.m., three hospitals were on total divert. August 10 at 10:45 p.m., 6 hospitals were on total divert.
“They may still bring them to our hospitals or even if we're on divert because that patient truly needs emergent care, and we will respond,” Wilson confirmed, “We will do everything in our power to get that patient care.”
In a statement, Brandon Regional said “We encourage anyone who has an emergency or urgent situation to seek immediate care.”
And Advent Health said “We encourage people in need of a COVID-19 test to avoid the ER unless they are having trouble breathing.”
But the plea for people to get vaccinated continues.
“On my recent shift, it was almost all unvaccinated very sick, sick people, and also younger patients from what we saw initially,” Wilson said on a Friday evening.
“The sound of the cough, it's like a death cough,” Beaumont concluded, “It's like the most powerless feeling is to be in that ER.”
Many hospitals have stopped overnight elective surgeries to free up beds and staff for emergency patients. BayCare even has a tents on stand by just in case they need overflow space. They say they have one tent set up at a smaller hospital, but it is not being used.
We’ve also been watching Pinellas County ambulance wait times at area hospitals. They have fluctuated anywhere from less than 10 minutes to several hours. Hospitals are consistently listing “bed delays.”
Hillsborough County Fire Rescue is also making changes to keep up with the changes.
Wilson said when they get stuck at hospitals with patients, they cant respond to other calls. They then have to send the next closest ambulance to help, and if there are a lot of calls, that creates a delay in emergency response times.
Sunday, they added four more ambulances to their fleet and moved several staff to the streets to cover the shifts.
“We took some staff from 40 hour positions who weren’t previously working on the ambulances, put them out on street, and they’re paramedics as well so they're just as highly trained as the rest of our staff, to help increase our capacity to try and help the increasing needs of the community,” Wilson explained.
The fire department is also asking people to please not call for emergency services if it is for something they can wait to see an urgent care or primary care doctor.
If it is something serious, doctors say you should not put it off.
“Truly encourage people to still come in, we're taking a lot of steps to try and protect our patients to separate areas for those who may have COVID and those who don't,” Wilson promised, “We're doing everything that we can our power to keep you safe and to still provide the same care that we had before.”
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