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With hospitals full of coronavirus patients, ambulances wait hours for beds to become available

4 weeks 17 hours 55 minutes ago Friday, July 10 2020 Jul 10, 2020 July 10, 2020 8:24 PM July 10, 2020 in News - Local
A Hidalgo County EMS ambulance. (KRGV File Photo.)

Ambulances in Hidalgo County are waiting 4 to 12 hours in hospital parking lots before they’re allowed to drop off patients — because the hospitals can’t find any spare beds.

Hidalgo County hospitals, which are struggling to treat hundreds of people infected with the coronavirus, simply can’t find beds for new patients, said Frank Torres, the chairman of the Trauma Regional Advisory Council for the Lower Rio Grande Valley, which brings together hospitals and ambulance companies to improve care.

“Basically what I’m hearing is 4- to 12-hour waits at the hospital parking lots,” Torres said. “Every hospital in the Valley.”

The Regional Advisory Council discussed the problem Wednesday.

Some ambulances wait so long they run low on gas and oxygen for patients, Torres said, adding that support staff are refueling ambulances and refilling oxygen tanks in parking lots.

“It’s just simple: We are in a crisis,” Torres said. “Our hospitals are operating at over 100% of capacity and the COVID-19 cases keep coming in. So, not only do they have to deal with COVID-19 patients, they have to take care of all of the other calls.”

Torres and administrators from local ambulance companies said Hidalgo County needs a mobile hospital or some type of temporary facility to handle COVID-19 patients.

“We need additional places to transport to — an offsite facility,” said Mack Gilbert, the director of operations for Med-Care EMS, which serves McAllen and Mission. “And I know there’s talk about it right now.”

In the meantime, though, ambulances will keep waiting in hospital parking lots.

“They’re triaging pretty well,” Gilbert said, referring to local hospitals. “I have not seen anything that they’re not taking care of as quickly as they can.”

While paramedics and patients understand the delays, they remain deeply frustrating.

Peñitas City Manager Omar Romero, who is steering Hidalgo County EMS through Chapter 11 bankruptcy as the company’s chief restructuring officer, went to Rio Grande Regional Hospital on Thursday to see the situation for himself.

“We had a patient who had dangerously low oxygen levels,” Romero said, but the hospital kept him waiting in the ambulance.

Romero said the ambulance spent 11 hours and 52 minutes waiting in the parking lot before the hospital admitted him.

Another patient suffered a heart attack, Romero said. He waited too.

Frustrated by the situation, Romero wrote an email to more than 10 city managers and Hidalgo County Judge Richard F. Cortez.

“I’m writing this email to everyone tonight from the ER Ambulance receiving area of Rio Grande Regional Hospital. I was called by Hidalgo County EMS dispatch to come see for myself the situation that we find ourselves in,” Romero wrote at 12:17 a.m. on Friday. “This is much worse than I could have ever imagined.”

At 5 p.m. Thursday, paramedics had transported the patient who suffered a heart attack, Romero said.

“The crew stabilized the patient and had a steady strong heart beat when delivered. That patient was just taken to the morgue,” Romero wrote. “They died in a hallway later tonight because the hospital couldn’t find a bed in the ICU or hospital.”

Adriana Morales, the director of community and public relations at Rio Grande Regional Hospital, said Romero was wrong.

“We had nobody, anywhere in this hospital, pass away in any hallway, yesterday or at any time,” Morales said.

All patients are screened and stabilized when they arrive, Morales said. The hospital prioritizes patients with the most serious medical conditions.

“Just like other South Texas-area hospitals and hundreds of others around the country, Rio Grande Regional Hospital has experienced a large increase of ER patient visits due to COVID-19,” according to a statement released by the hospital. “Rio Grande Regional Hospital implemented multiple strategies to address the surge. First, we have redeployed staff that typically work in units such as elective procedures (which are not taking place) and placed them in support positions for the staff caring for COVID-19 patients. Secondly, we are helping staff who are experiencing situations that might affect their ability to work, such as caring for vulnerable people in their personal lives, and offering other incentives. Thirdly, we are pursuing opportunities to bring in nurses from affiliated facilities, including outside the region, local staffing firms and state resources.”

Under normal circumstances, a hospital without any beds available would notify ambulance companies. The notification process, called “diversion,” sends ambulances to other hospitals.

During the past two weeks, however, nearly all hospitals in Hidalgo County notified ambulance companies they were on “diversion” status.

That left Hidalgo County EMS, which serves Pharr, Edinburg and parts of rural Hidalgo County, with few options.

“Dispatch has called every hospital in the area and even those with no ambulances in line are saying ‘no, we are on diversion.’ The patient’s family is standing outside the ambulance praying for the patient, begging for the ambulance to take their father to another hospital,” Romero wrote. “From what I have been informed there is no such thing as diversion. Diversion is a courtesy. Diversion is allowing people to die in trucks, in hallways, and on stretchers.”

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