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Pinellas County prepares for local fire departments to transport patients to hospitals as Sunstar gets overwhelmed

On July 6, Sunstar didn't have enough ambulances during surge
Posted at 6:16 PM, Jul 09, 2020
and last updated 2020-07-09 18:16:59-04

PINELLAS COUNTY, Fla. -- Pinellas County's ambulance provider is getting some help after it was overwhelmed during the holiday weekend.

You may not be aware but most Pinellas County fire departments rarely ever transport patients to a hospital. That's Sunstar's job under a contract with the county.

However, local fire departments are capable of doing it. The county has 25 rescue units equipped to do a transport. It really only happens during emergencies, like a hurricane, but in the midst of a global COVID-19 pandemic, it's possible you'll see fire departments providing this rare service more often.

Sunstar is seeing the strain. According to a county spokesperson, between 5 p.m. and 9 p.m. on Monday, July 6, the transport system ran out of ambulances to handle a spike in EMS calls. Meaning, local county fire departments had to pick up the slack by transporting their own patients to the hospital.

During that four-hour span, there were 62 Sunstar ambulances on duty and all 25 fire department rescue units were placed on a dual role. Fire department paramedics ended up transporting 22 patients by the time the county returned to normal operating conditions.

In anticipation of a busy holiday weekend, Pinellas County EMS implemented a new system status condition, on July 2, knowns as Condition 3 Medical (3M). When it is activated during peak periods, it indicates rescue units have to step in to help with a shortage of Sunstar ambulances.

"When the system is challenged, when it's strained, we can bring our resources to bear on that strain and alleviate it," said Ian Womack, Division Chief of Rescue.

Womack says Condition 3M is not an easy feat for his people, "There are always concerns. Our concern is how long can we sustain this? It's a grind for our workforce."

Womack remembers his rescue units having to last step in to help Sunstar during Hurricane Irma, but believes the county has never had to transport as many patients in one day as they did on July 6.

ABC Action News asked Womack if this is all a sign of an overwhelmed system before the patient ever makes it through the hospital doors, a sort of canary in the coal mine. Womack responded he doesn't believe so. He insists Condition 3M is a strategy to add resources and prevent the EMS system from entering into code red. That's the point the general public will start noticing a disruption in service.

Right now, the county is under code yellow under its COVID-19 response plan. Womack attributes the Sunstar shortage to two main reasons, brought about by the pandemic, and manifesting in unpredictable surges.

"Hospitals have turned back elective procedures so they are at a higher capacity than they were before," he said, "and with the influx of nursing home residents, they are experiencing capacity issues."

He believes it comes down to an increasing census at the hospital and an increasing demand for patient transfers from long-term care facilities.

On June 17, the governor's administration issued emergency rules requiring staff members at nursing homes and assisted living facilities to be tested every two weeks. Womack also points to delays at hospitals in having beds available for patients. So far, Condition 3M has only been used once during this pandemic.

ABC Action News Reporter Isabel Rosales asked Womack if he was concerned about an impact to response times in handling other emergencies should Condition 3M happen more frequently or for extended periods of time.

"Absolutely, and that's why we monitor that very closely," said Womack, "If the demand continues to elevate it's always a concern, the integrity of our workforce is a concern. How do we continue to provide the service that's needed in the community?"

However, Womack hopes Condition 3M will not become common practice.

"Despite concern for the event escalating, I'm confident in what resources and expertise exist in our system to meet those challenges and still provide a level of service to the community," he said.