One or more Tri-City hospitals was too busy to take patients coming by ambulance for significant periods nearly every day this month.

Dr. Kevin Hodges, emergency medical director for Benton and Franklin counties, said that there were also some days when all three of the Tri-Cities hospitals have been “on divert” for new patients at the same time, asking that ambulances take patients to a different hospital.

The busy hospitals and packed emergency rooms are causing substantial problems for Tri-Cities emergency medical services and the patients who call 911, either because they have COVID-19 or because of other medical emergencies, he said at a Benton Franklin Health District news briefing Thursday.

More on the COVID-19 pandemic

Up to 30% of patients in the Richland, Kennewick, Pasco and Prosser hospitals have been admitted for treatment of COVID-19 this week, according to health district data.

Benton and Franklin counties have had more than 200 and sometimes more than 300 new COVID-19 cases confirmed on recent days.

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The high number of new cases is putting “unprecedented” stress on an already stressed health-care system, said Hodges, who also is the Washington state-appointed emergency medical director for Yakima and Adams counties, and works as an emergency physician in the Tri-Cities.

As hospitals fill to the capacity their staffs can handle, patients back up in their emergency departments as they wait for beds. That limits the number of new emergency patients that can be treated.

Ambulances have to divert to hospitals that are taking emergency patients rather than going to the hospital preferred by the patient or the closest hospital.

The diversions are frustrating for patients and their families, Hodges said. And longer drives across the Tri-Cities or farther to a hospital that can treat an emergency patient also means more time spent by first responders on each call.

Unneeded calls for EMS

Over the last few months, more people have called for ambulances after getting a positive COVID-19 test result, even though they have no symptoms, said Ben Shearer of the Pasco Fire Department at the news briefing.

“This is taking valuable resources out of service and not available when a more severe call comes in,” he said.

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While first responders are dealing with nonemergency calls, they are not available for serious calls, such as people having heart attacks. An ambulance must be dispatched from father away, delaying treatment, he said.

People who test positive for COVID and who do not have symptoms should call their primary care provider. If they don’t have one, most insurance providers, including Medicare and Medicaid, have a nurse or medical information line to call.

However, people with a fever that medication isn’t helping, or who are having breathing problems, should call 911 immediately, Shearer said.

A plea to get vaccinated

Emergency medical service providers frequently are thanked for their work, either in person or on social media, Hodges said.

But the thanks they really want is for people to get vaccinated against COVID-19, to wear face masks and listen to health care experts rather than pundits and people on social media, he said.

“This is a disease of the unvaccinated and unfortunately it continues to be spread by ignorance of public health measures or flaunting of public health measures,” he said.

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Emergency medical service providers are frustrated, with some burned out and others taking early retirement, he said.

Health care providers “are forced to watch the very devastating effects of this disease on very frightened patients and their equally terrified family members,” he said.

“We see how much they are suffering and for how long,” he said. “If they die, that’s terrible, of course, but even if they survive the infection the amount of suffering involved and for how long they suffer is terrible.”

Up to 95% of people treated for COVID-19 at Kadlec Regional Medical Center in Richland, the Tri-Cities’ largest hospital, have not been vaccinated, said Dr. Brian York, speaking on the Kadlec on Call podcast Wednesday.

Those people who are vaccinated and still require hospital care for a breakthrough case of COVID-19 usually respond well to treatment and improve quickly, he said. Rarely do they need care in the intensive care unit.

Navigating the pandemic
(Jennifer Luxton / The Seattle Times)

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