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Thurston County ambulances seeing long emergency room wait times

COVID unit at Harborview Medical Center. (File photo by Karen Ducey/Getty Images)

Thurston County ambulances are running into serious delays when they arrive at the hospital — up to 90 minutes to be able to transport patients into emergency rooms.

Kurt Harden, director of Emergency Services for Thurston County, said that up to four ambulances can be waiting in the hospital parking lot at any given time because hospitals are filling up.

The problem has been building for a while, he said, but has really come to a head in the past week — especially during daytime hours. One battalion chief told Harden last week that it was the worst day he had experienced in his 20-year career.

“We talked to the Department of Health, and they have told us this is an issue up and down the I-5 corridor,” Harden said.

Skagit Valley Hospital, other North Sound facilities filling up

Last month, Skagit Regional Health Vice President and Chief Medical Officer Dr. Connie Davis told KIRO Radio that Skagit Valley Hospital and other medical centers in Whatcom and Snohomish Counties were at full capacity.

The overflowing emergency rooms are not, however, filling up with COVID patients — though there does appear to be an indirect coronavirus connection. Davis observed that during the nice weather, more people are becoming injured by going out and doing extreme sports.

Harden agreed with this assessment.

“It’s not directly COVID-related, but … it could be that, 2020 was the year we sat at home, maybe people are getting out there and doing more now,” Harden said.

Additionally, some people decided to forego regular screenings and checkups during the pandemic, and are now experiencing heart problems and other issues that may have been less severe or even preventable if caught earlier.

“We’re hearing stories where people deferred or delayed medical treatment, potentially, because of COVID, and … we’re understanding that what they may have had before, it’s gotten worse,” Harden said. “And now they have to go to the emergency department instead of being able to go to their primary care physician.”

Thurston County emergency workers are coming up with strategies to mitigate the issue until hospitals become less crowded. For example, emergency room staff are setting up makeshift beds for patients waiting to be admitted into the hospital. That way, the patients can have access to all of the additional equipment available at a hospital that cannot fit in the back of ambulances.

“They created a little small place where they have four hospital gurney beds, and we have placed one or two EMTs at that location, so that when a transport unit rolls in, they can offload that patient to that gurney,” Harden said. “Then we’ve returned that transport unit back into service, and [the patient is] still receiving EMS and medical care until the emergency department can come out and accept them into that system.”

Ambulance companies in Thurston County are also hiring additional staff and streamlining the training process, so the newcomers can start working sooner.

Harden said they hope to see some improvement from these measures within a month or so.

In the meantime, however, he assured Thurston County residents that they do not worry if they have an emergency. There are enough staff members that paramedics will be at the patient’s side right away — they just may not immediately be able to bring an ambulance or get the patient into the hospital.

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