In early March of 2020, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic was already striking large cities, namely New York. The effect of the strained American health care system on people’s access to medical care during the worst health crisis in modern history was evident. Legislative aid packages in the first few months of lockdown narrowed in on hospitals and urgent care centers–locations where patients receive care–ignoring the emergency workers and transportation that are also overburdened and underfunded.
Impact on Emergency Responders and Ambulance Companies
As the number of patients in need of hospitals and urgent care centers spiked with the rise in COVID-19 cases, calls to emergency transportation services increased as well. New York, for example, saw the number of 911 calls made on a daily basis increase by up to 50% in March of 2020. In addition, medical care in hospitals quickly became more inaccessible as more and more health care centers reached their capacity, requiring emergency response workers to provide medical care en route to health care providers themselves. As a result, the costs that EMS workers and transportation services had to take on began to increase by up to 20-25% to cover the cost of protective gear and the hiring of workers as more fell ill.
To address the harm suffered by healthcare providers and workers, the federal government provided relief aid through the Department of Health and Human Services. Unfortunately, the $350 million in aid provided to EMS services, especially private ambulance companies, was dwarfed by the $30 billion distributed to hospitals and nursing homes. Considering that private ambulance companies are currently providing care to about a third of all Americans, with the majority of these people residing in rural areas, it is clear that this aid will not keep these companies profitable for much longer, despite the increase in demand for their services. In fact, that aid package, which was distributed in April, only lasted private companies a few weeks before running out.
In Georgia, emergency workers have tried to mitigate the crisis and address the influx of ambulance patients by increasing communication between different ambulance providers. Reports of emergency workers ignoring calls to pick up patients that cannot be resuscitated or having to choose which patients to transport based on the likelihood of their survival worried workers like Chad Black, the director of the EMS Association of Georgia. Black explains that he “[doesn’t] know where our breaking point is,” but that Georgia is “getting very close.” In particular, rural areas of Georgia have seen delays in response times as ambulances are forced to drive for hours to reach hospitals in more urban areas that are not yet at capacity. Traffic at the bays of hospitals and emergency rooms is also slowing response times in cities and suburbs of Georgia. To address this issue, the database called the Georgia Coordinating Center allows public and private ambulances of different companies to communicate with each other to better distribute the patients being transported across health care centers in Georgia.
In Athens-Clarke County, specifically, the strain on private and public ambulance companies will likely only continue to increase. This is clearly noted by the most recent statistics regarding the bed capacity and usage in ACC hospitals. The percentage of hospital beds occupied by patients suffering from COVID-19 is used to categorize the strain the hospitals are under. As of January 14th, 2021, Landmark Hospital, Piedmont Athens Regional and St. Mary’s all had over 83% of their beds occupied. While Landmark did not report any patients with COVID-19, 26.17% of the patients at St. Mary’s and 40.65% of the patients at Piedmont Athens Regional were suffering from the virus. This means that these hospitals are categorized as being under extreme and immense strain, respectively. In other words, two out of the three locations providing emergency medical care in ACC are currently overburdened by the pandemic.
Though the Georgia Coordinating Center database may help to increase the efficiency of emergency response in Georgia, longer-term responses and aid to ambulance providers are required to ensure the rural areas across the U.S. receive the care they need and that all patients in need of care can safely reach a hospital. Current COVID relief packages being discussed in Congress will provide aid to health care providers in general in the form of $50-100 billion in funding. However, this legislation will not specifically address the needs of ambulance companies. For this reason, medical technicians representing ambulance services nationwide request that legislators redirect funds from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief Economic Security (CARES) Act to help this subsection of the health care response to the pandemic. Of the $175 billion included in the CARES Act, medical technicians estimate that about $43,500 are needed for each of over 60,000 active ambulances, totaling $2.62 billion total dollars in aid.