By Callie Hietala
The City of Martinsville announced last week that, due to issues with staffing and an increase in the number of critical patients, “hospitals are operating at disaster levels.”
With limited bed capacity available, “patients not meeting the criteria for ambulance transport to an emergency room” are advised to see either their primary care physician or go to an urgent care facility.
Martinsville EMS is making changes to prioritize patients with emergent medical conditions to ensure they receive the care and resources they need.
Virginia Department of Health Public Information Officer Nancy Bell said this is not an issue unique to Martinsville hospitals across the state and nationwide are dealing with the same problems, due in part to an increase in patients being treated for COVID-19.
In Franklin County, Bell said, “we have a tent set up in the ER parking lot. All the beds are full. All the ICU units are full, and people are pouring in, so it’s the same message” as in Martinsville “don’t come unless you have a medical emergency. It’s that perfect storm of the Delta variant being more severe and not having enough people vaccinated to have herd immunity.”
“The emergency department is not the place for that,” Anderson said. “We get a lot of 911 calls that aren’t necessarily true emergencies.”
Rather than using emergency resources for non-emergency needs, Anderson said the public should take advantage of their primary care doctor, urgent cares, and even tele-doc services.
With the new changes in place, emergency crews will assess the condition of patients who call 911. If the issue is not life-threatening and the patient has access to an alternative healthcare provider, “we try to encourage them to do that,” he said.
Dr. Sheranda Gunn-Nolan, Chief Medical Officer with Sovah Health, said that hospital capacity “is incredibly fluid and changes rapidly. To manage the increase in COVID-19 patients requiring hospitalization, our hospital leaders are evaluating capacity within every department hour-to-hour, closely tracking fluctuations in emergency, acute and critical care areas and regularly reporting our capacity in these areas to the state and to our regional partners. Currently, Sovah Health is doing everything we can to meet this latest surge with all of our available resources.”
Martinsville Fire Chief and Fire Marshal Ted Anderson agreed. He added that some who call 911 want to go to the emergency room for COVID-19 testing.
“If we’re not under diversion, it’s pretty much going to be business as usual,” Anderson said, but added that he can envision a future where the same or similar evaluation practices are put in place even when hospitals are not diverting patients. His deputy chief has been working for several years on assessments in the field to help eliminate non-emergent transports.
“Obviously if that’s not feasible, if it’s remotely close to needing emergency room care, then that’s what we’re going to do,” Anderson said, and added that most have been understanding and receptive to the new evaluation guidelines.
A lack of sufficient staffing, both in hospitals and in emergency services departments, contributed to the need for these new guidelines, Anderson said, and noted that when he initially began his career, he competed against more than 100 applicants for the job.
Now, “we’re lucky to have 10 people apply. It’s getting harder and harder to find the expertise and the drive needed for this type of career,” he said.
In hospitals too, “medical staff are quitting,” Bell said. “The hours have been tremendous. It’s a lot to ask a person to take care of people all day and then go home and potentially expose your family to something and get yourself run down working a lot of overtime.”
Medical staff are getting burned out, she said. However, those who remain continue to work to provide the best medical care possible to as many people as possible.
“I know the hospitals well, and the people who work there,” Bell said, “and I know they are doubling and tripling their effort, to try to get people through.”