Shortage of EMTs, paramedics leads to longer wait times during pandemic

ATLANTA — Georgia already faced a paramedic shortage before COVID-19, but the pandemic has added to the problem, leading to staffing shortages in some Georgia departments and longer wait times for 911 callers.

Channel 2′s Sophia Choi investigated and found that because of the shortage, you may wait hours for help when seconds matter.

[READ MORE: Georgia facing dangerous shortage of EMTs, paramedics]

“Everybody is really overworked with the number of people that we have to cover the state in emergency operations,” said Georgia EMS Association Director Kim Littleton.

Habersham County reported ambulances sitting idle because they simply didn’t have enough paramedics to use them. Now with COVID-19, officials say the few ambulances that are running sometimes get stuck at hospitals for hours waiting for an available bed.

Clayton County Fire & Emergency Services Chief Landry Merkison said his department has found creative solutions to protect and retain employees, including a mask sanitation box his team built to stretch the department’s PPE supply further.

“We’ve really gone out and brought about three or four different ways that we can get employees to come into this organization. And it’s so far it’s helped us. It’s helped us through the challenges that COVID has brought us,” said Merkison.

One of the challenges includes regularly going into small bedrooms to help COVID-19 patients. It’s a challenge that could deter some from taking on the job, and put those already doing the work at risk of infection.

Most EMS personnel in Georgia are recruited, so they already have a job when graduating.

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“There is not a paramedic school that’s putting out 25 brand-new medics that [don’t] have a job,” explained Chad Black, who is both Chairman of the Georgia EMS Association and Director for Habersham County Emergency Services.

According to Black, many EMS personnel are now trading the back of an ambulance for higher-paying jobs inside a hospital.

“They are hiring paramedics that can do about as much as a nurse can do to fill those roles of the nursing shortage,” he said. “They can pay them more than we can pay them for working less hours.”

Channel 2 checked with more than a dozen metro Atlanta fire departments to compare the number of EMS vacancies pre-pandemic versus now.

[FULL TABLE: Metro Atlanta EMS staffing]

Many counties, like Forsyth, Gwinnett and Cobb, reported an increase in open positions. But others, like Clayton and Rockdale counties, managed to add employees during the pandemic. Henry County was unable to pull pre-pandemic staffing numbers. The City of Atlanta and Cherokee, Coweta, DeKalb, Douglas and Fayette counties did not respond to requests for staffing numbers by time of publication.

Littleton explained that Georgia’s hardest-hit areas are rural.

“They were having to go down by one or two trucks that they normally operate a day, just because of not having the staffing to operate those ambulances,” she said. “And yes, there have been times where there have been patients waiting because you had units that were on other calls, and there were only so many units to be able to cover the calls in that county.”

And once an ambulance arrives, the patient may find themselves waiting again outside the hospital.

“We’ve had a couple of two or three days where we’ve had 14 or 15 ambulances in line waiting to deliver that patient to the ER,” said Black.

Chief Merkison recognized that the industry is changing, and that Georgia’s emergency medical services must adapt by finding new ways to recruit and retain.

“EMS is not what it was 20 years ago. It’s not what it was 10 years ago. And after COVID, it’s not what it was last year.”

So what is the solution? Littleton said higher salaries always help to attract candidates. But right now, ambulance services are losing money because they’re not transporting as many patients. To preserve hospital beds, EMS providers are trying to treat patients at home whenever possible.

“The problem that creates for our service is, there’s no reimbursement for that,” explained Merkison. “So it’s time, it’s services, it’s supplies; there’s a lot of costs that go into that. And if we’re doing that multiple times throughout a shift, and you got to start looking at the financial impact of what that brings to a service.”