‘Our emergency departments are overcrowded’: Ambulances seeing longer wait times at Houston hospitals as COVID cases surge

Some patients waiting to be admitted into hospitals for hours

HOUSTON – In 2016, an independent study commissioned by the city of Houston called for 70 “peak time” ambulances to be added to the Houston Fire Department in order to effectively serve the city’s population.

That was years before anybody had ever heard of COVID-19. But now, during the fourth wave of the pandemic, those extra ambulances and crews, which were never added, might have helped relieve an acute problem.

HFD ambulances, along with the EMTs and Paramedics who operate them, are sitting at hospitals, sometimes for hours, waiting for packed hospitals to accept patients.

“Our emergency departments are overcrowded, our hospitals are full, and we know, through our collaboration with our EMS providers, that their call volumes are up as well,” said Sterling Taylor, Director of Hospital and EMS Solutions at Methodist Hospital.

HFD Chief Sam Pena told KPRC 2 by phone that the hospital delays are untenable, and that he would investigate the possibility of essentially “dropping off” patients who were deemed stable and non-critical so ambulance crews could get back into service.

Last week, Chief Medical Officer Dr. David Persse also highlighted the issue during a news briefing.

“We started this conference at one o’clock in the afternoon, the Houston Fire Department has 104 ambulances, 26 of them were waiting to off-load patients. Four of them had been there for over two hours,” Dr. Persse said.

At least one hospital is pushing back against the idea of “dropping off” patients.

“We would rather collaborate to find an efficient way to manage that. It sounds good to just drop them off and go, but that’s not the right thing to do for the patient,” said Taylor.

On Tuesday, Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association President Patrick Lancton said the problem of not having enough ambulances and not having enough personnel, pre-dates the pandemic.

“The city has known about this. The city has known about it from their own independent studies. The city has been repeatedly told by expert after expert,” Lancton said.