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Diversions, extra calls put added pressure on Houston’s EMS crews during COVID-19 pandemic

HOUSTON – Houston’s emergency medical services crews are as busy as they’ve ever been, answering the COVID-19 call.

“There is no easy shift out here,” said Houston Fire Chief Samuel Peña. “Each and every day.”

The Houston Fire Department is a “full service” department which means firefighters respond to fires and other emergencies and provide ambulatory services when necessary. Data reviewed by Channel 2 Investigates shows that since March, there’s been a 30% increase in calls for service. It’s happening at a time when the firefighters are falling victim to the virus themselves. Three weeks ago, more than 300 firefighters were in quarantine.

“When you take 300 firefighters, that’s almost a third of what I would need every day, to staff every day,” says Chief Pena.

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Constant threat

Captain C.J. Brown is the fire department’s EMS supervisor. He hasn’t been quarantined, but he knows the potential is there.

“I think it is still in my mind for sure,” he said. “But there’s been times when it’s like a house fire, you just go in and trying to save someone, but you’re still protecting yourself.”

The department requires emergency medical personnel to wear protective glasses, a mask, and an apron on every call. There’s also a new tool is in place. An Infectious Disease Alert, or IDA, will let first responders know when there is a potential COVID-19 case waiting for them. Most patients and their loved ones have been forthcoming with that vital information.

“Most of the time they tell us or at least say ‘you know I’ve been tested,‘ whether they’re waiting for the results or not, or they have had it in the past,” said Emergency Medical Technician Andrew Valdez.

Diversions on the rise

Another challenge during the pandemic has been ambulance diversions, during which crews have to take patients to a different ER because the nearest one is full. At the city’s busiest ERs, the number of hours spent on diversion status this year is three times what it was last year.

Data shows Houston's 12 busiest hospitals spending more time on "diversion status" this year compared to 2019.
Data shows Houston's 12 busiest hospitals spending more time on "diversion status" this year compared to 2019. (Copyright 2020 by KPRC Click2Houston - All rights reserved.)

“That bottleneck, that delay, prevents us from having units available in the system to respond to the next call,” said Peña. “And that’s not good for the patient, it’s not good for EMTs, and it’s not good for our community that we serve.”