America’s Healthcare System: San Bernardino County stops sending ambulances to 911 calls as coronavirus surges

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San Bernardino County emergency dispatchers have begun sending an ambulance to only some 911 calls, a strategy that’s lightening their load as coronavirus-related calls surge.

People whose symptoms appear consistent with COVID-19 or the flu but who do not appear to need hospitalization are being visited by paramedics without an ambulance, said Steve Tracy, a spokesman for the San Bernardino County Fire Department.

The new policy started Friday afternoon, Nov. 27, he said.

“We’re only a couple days into it, but there’s already 52% reduction in transports, which is really helping the hospitals,” Tracy said Monday, Nov. 30.

Riverside County has a similar plan ready but has not implemented it, Bruce Barton, head of the county’s emergency management department, said Monday.

Before San Bernardino County’s new policy began, some ambulances were waiting four to six hours at a hospital before they could release a patient, Tracy said.

“That ambulance is tied up,” he said. “It can’t respond to other emergencies.”

There hasn’t been a noticeable change in how quickly ambulances are responding to calls, he said.

Paramedics continue to fully assess everyone who calls 911. They advise people to take steps, including visiting urgent care centers or contacting their doctor or nurse’s hotline, and leave information about how to do so, Tracy said. They also tell people to call 911 again if their condition worsens.

Tracy advises people to screen themselves before calling 911 to avoid straining ambulances.

“If your symptomology is indicating that you’re sick or you have flu-like symptoms, we want you to call your doctor first and let your doctor help you make a decision,” he said. “Of course, if you’re short of breath or have other symptoms of an emergency, then call 911.”

San Bernardino County coronavirus hospitalizations have broken records each of the past several days, with 856 people hospitalized with a confirmed case of COVID-19 as of Monday. The number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 in the county has jumped by at least 50 in a single day five times since Nov. 20, with the largest increase before that being 36 people in July.

Inland hospital officials have said they are “bursting at the seams” and expecting numbers to worsen.

In Riverside County, Barton noted last week that ambulance and hospital use in Riverside County was below the worst recent flu year — December 2017 to January 2018 — but said COVID-19 hospitalizations are more labor-intensive and the pandemic has already lasted far longer than a flu season.

Riverside County set a record Monday for confirmed COVID-19 patients in hospital beds: 600. That number is up 43% from a week earlier. The worst before that was 550 in July.

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