Ambulances wait outside some Florida hospitals as COVID infections spread

Published: August 10, 2021 12:42 PM EDT
Updated: August 10, 2021 1:34 PM EDT
Children arrive for the first day of school at Washington Elementary School in Riviera Beach, Fla., Tuesday, Aug. 10, 2021. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

COVID-19 cases have filled so many Florida hospital beds that ambulance services and fire departments are straining to respond to emergencies.

In St. Petersburg, some patients wait inside ambulances for up to an hour before hospitals can admit them — a process that usually takes about 15 minutes, Pinellas County Administrator Barry Burton said.

While ambulances sit outside emergency rooms, they are essentially off the grid.

“They’re not available to take another call, which forces the fire department on scene at an accident or something to take that transport. That’s caused quite a backlog for the system.”

Hospitalizations rose by more than 1,100 on Tuesday to 14,787 patients with COVID-19, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. More than 47% of ICU beds were taken by about 3,000 coronavirus patients. That number has nearly tripled in the last three weeks.

At no other time during the pandemic have intensive care units seen a percentage of COVID patients as high as in the last two days. Last year around mid-July, the percentage edged 45% with about 1,400 patients. Officials ramped up beds at hospitals and at their peak reported about 2,500 ICU patients at a time. At the height of last year’s summer surge, Florida had about 10,170 COVID-19 hospitalizations overall.

Burton stressed that the most serious non-COVID cases, like heart attacks and strokes, still get prompt attention in emergency rooms. And he says the county is working with fire rescue officials to find more ambulances and have extra staff on hand. But “that really taxes on already overstressed fire and rescue staff,” he warned.

Officials have said the surge brought on by the spread of the delta variant of COVID-19 is mostly among the unvaccinated. And it comes as children across Florida are heading back to school. Classroom instruction begins this week in the heavily populated regions around Tampa, Jacksonville and Orlando. Most students in South Florida head back to school next week.

AdventHealth Central Florida, a hospital system that spans seven counties around Orlando, had a record high 1,350 COVID-19 patients last Thursday, according to spokesman Jeff Grainger. Of those patients, 410 were in five hospitals in Volusia and Flagler counties, he added.

The hospital system has plenty of ventilators, monitors and other specialized equipment to quickly convert space in the hospital to both standard- and ICU-level rooms, he told The Daytona Beach News-Journal.

“It’s important to realize that hospital capacity numbers you might find on a website are snapshots in time. Our hospitals are designed in such a way that spaces are flexible and expandable,” Grainger said, adding that the system is able to match “patients to the facility that best matches the level of care they need.”