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How local ambulance crews are coping with COVID-19 surge



AUGUSTA, Ga. – As local hospitals deal with a rising number of COVID-19 patients after the holidays, Augusta’s ambulance service is doing all it can to help.

“We are doing so many things to try to help right now with the surge,” said Steven Vincent, vice president of Gold Cross EMS.

He says the number of people in need of transportation has increased about 10 to 15 percent, but the number of calls crews respond to is much higher.

“People are calling 911 more, and people are scared. You know, ‘Maybe I have COVID; I don’t understand exactly what that means,’ and it’s scary,” he said.

He says because the call volume is high, some changes have been made.

“Now we are treating every call as a potential COVID patient,” he said.

He says the number of beds available at local hospitals is constantly changing.

In fact, officials say the strain we’re seeing on our local hospitals is starting to cause a ripple effect.

Gold Cross said there have been times in the past few weeks when crews try to drop off a patient, and there’s no more room. It’s a situation known as ambulance diversion, and various local hospitals have been reaching that point in recent days.

When University Hospital was on total patient EMS diversion due to “COVID-19 and other factors” on Friday, spokeswoman Revecca Sylvester said the problem was lack of available beds.

Augusta University Health says its intensive care unit is at capacity, so it’s turned at least four different areas into COVID-19 units.

“They have expanded their ER, changed rooms into COVID rooms — doing everything they can to make more space,” Vincent said.

But when extra space isn’t available, he says some paramedics are willing to step in and help.

“Some of our paramedics who no longer work on the ambulance will watch the patients on a stretcher,” Vincent said.

He said they’ll keep an eye on the patient while waiting for a bed to open.

And as cases continue to surge, Gold Cross is trying new ways to take care of patients and keep them out of hospitals by offering telemedicine or taking patients to an urgent-care facility.

Dr. Phillip Coule, chief medical officer at Augusta University Health, says the situation could continue if people don’t heed warnings to avoid large gatherings and take other measures to avoid exposure to coronavirus,

“Unless we start having some control measures of people being a little bit more cautious about high-risk exposures … unfortunately, this fire will continue to burn in terms of an increasing number of cases,” he said.