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Surge in COVID cases stresses EMS

The impact of the surge in area COVID-19 cases has been revealed for a large variety of people and organizations, including Prince Edward County’s emergency medical service (EMS) agencies.

Prince Edward Deputy Emergency Coordinator Trey Pyle spoke about the surge’s impact on the county’s EMS during an emergency management presentation made to the Board of Supervisors Tuesday, Jan. 12.

“Spikes in the cases are currently stressing the health care systems in and around our area,” he said. “Many of the hospitals and mortuaries in the region are at or near capacity. The local (emergency rooms) ERs have been just overwhelmed. They’ve been going on diversion status.”

Diversion status means a hospital, like Centra Southside Community Hospital (Southside), asks ambulances to take their patients to another facility because the hospital in question has a full ER, full COVID unit and full intensive care unit, leaving no room for more patients.

“Southside does a very good job of working with the local agencies because they know there’s nowhere else to go, but at some point in time, there’s just nowhere to go,” Pyle said.

When a full Southside is the only place for ambulances to go, it leads to longer turnaround times.

“Ambulances are waiting up to two hours to drop a patient off and get back in service,” Pyle said. “Two Mondays ago, there were seven trucks sitting at the hospital for two hours. That’s a long time. When you tie up the three (staffed) ambulances in the county — two of Prince Edward’s and one of Meherrin’s — for two hours, there’s just nobody else to respond.

“Meherrin actually transported a call to Halifax from Hampden-Sydney just to get some patients moving a different direction,” he added.

Pyle, who is also fire chief for Meherrin Volunteer Fire and Rescue, explained in a Wednesday, Jan. 13, interview what he meant by “three staffed ambulances.” Amid normal EMS operations during the daytime, there are three ambulances available in the county staffed with paid crews — two from Prince Edward Volunteer Rescue Squad (PEVRS) and one from Meherrin Fire and Rescue.

While there are additional ambulances available, including three more from PEVRS and one more from Meherrin, they would require volunteer staff to assist in getting them on the road.

“It is not uncommon to have volunteers available to cover additional calls, but their availability varies day to day,” Pyle said.

Pyle’s wife, Sally Pyle, serves as EMS captain for Meherrin Volunteer Fire and Rescue. She spoke Wednesday to the impact of the COVID surge on her department.

“We are experiencing a spike in COVID-19 cases in the area which have caused longer wait times at the emergency room,” she said. “Due to those wait times our providers may make the decision to transport to another facility. We encourage the community to be patient with us and to use the ER for emergencies only. However, if you call 911, you will not be denied service.”

PEVRS Executive Director Deanna Jones said her agency has been responding to an increase in calls correlated to the COVID-19 pandemic, as are ambulances across the region.

“Due to our unique geographical location, PEVRS is only able to transport to (Centra Southside Community Hospital) in order to maintain emergency medical service capabilities for the county,” she said. “We have experienced an increase in extended wait times on arrival at the emergency room.

“At times, we have waited with our more stable patients for greater than an hour to transfer care to the ER staff,” she continued. “This does create a potential strain on the agency’s ability to respond to incoming 911 calls. The ER staff has done a great job in communicating with our agency and works hard to get our units back in service as quickly as possible.”

Jones said PEVRS is constantly monitoring turnaround times in order to adjust staffing as necessary to continue to meet the needs of the communities it serves.

“We are fortunate that our region does have a comprehensive diversion plan in place which provides guidance to agencies as hospitals reach capacity,” she said. “Agencies that are outside of the immediate proximity of the hospital may be diverted to other facilities in order to help disperse the patient population.”

She then advised community members in a way similar to that of Sally Pyle.

“I would like to remind our friends and neighbors that the best way to help ease the strain on local emergency resources is to utilize their family care providers when possible and reserve calling 911 and visiting the emergency department for life-threatening emergencies only,” Jones said.

Hampden-Sydney Volunteer Fire and Rescue does not offer emergency transport like PEVRS and Meherrin, but it does offer first responder services, which have also been impacted by the area COVID-19 surge.

L.W. Gilliam, fire operations chief at the department, said the agency arrives at the scenes of incidents out in the county quicker than a unit from Farmville or Meherrin and works to stabilize patients and give them first responder care on-site.

“Our call numbers are up from last year probably 30% (compared to) this time last year,” Gilliam said. “So it is a surge in call numbers, and (it) also puts us on the call longer when a rescue squad can’t clear up and leave the hospital and make it out there on time. So as far as our agency, that just makes it more vital for the county, especially since Pamplin (EMS) shut down last year.”

He affirmed it has become pivotal that Hampden-Sydney Fire and Rescue staff be well-trained in holding down a scene a little longer than they have been used to.

“And then just keeping membership in general throughout the county, it’s harder to get volunteers these days,” Gilliam said.