FEMA sends 25 ambulances to help as inter-facility transports soar in Minnesota

Richard Reeve
Updated: November 20, 2020 10:15 PM
Created: November 20, 2020 08:20 PM

The sound of sirens blaring. Paramedics and EMTs scrambling to respond to a 911 emergency.

It's a familiar scene, but especially now, during the pandemic.

“The bigger issue is that our health care systems are rapidly becoming overwhelmed,” Dr. Bjorn Peterson, a HealthPartners physician, declared. “We are regularly having to transfer patients hours away because of capacity issues our hospitals are facing in the Twin Cities.”

As of Friday, there’s a new, urgent assignment for 25 ambulances sent to Minnesota by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“We’re caring for a rapidly increasing number of COVID-infected patients in our communities,” Cindy Firkins Smith, the president and CEO of Carris Health, explained. "We're working to keep our hospitals and long-term care facilities out of crisis state."

The Minnesota Department of Health, now reporting more than 6,800 new COVID-19 cases and 68 new deaths.

On Wednesday, 93% of critical care beds were in use in the metro.

It’s hoped the FEMA ambulances, plus 65 paramedics, EMTs and supervisors will help make a difference.

Their mission is to transfer non-critical patients so that hospitals can expand their surge capacity.

“This is all a bed capacity issue,” said Bruce Hildebrandt, president of the Minnesota Ambulance Association. "It's kind of leveling the load across the state, so that everyone has some capacity, versus a hospital being completely full, with no capacity to take on anybody.”

How severe is the need?

MDH says inter-facility transports are up 493% over three weeks ago, and the numbers are rising rapidly.

Health officials also say 68 of 103 ambulance services they surveyed said they’ll need state and federal assistance if the surge gets worse.

"It's musical hospital beds. We're doing it in the entire state,” Smith said.

She added that hospital systems like Carris Heath in Willmar are scrambling to keep beds open for COVID patients — but also for those suffering from emergencies like heart attacks, strokes, and car accidents.

"If we have a patient in our hospital that we think is well enough to transfer to one of our partner hospitals to be cared for at a different level of care, we will do that, in order to open a bed for someone to come in at an ICU level,” Smith said.

Peterson said without help, the situation could be worse in rural areas.

"The county may have only one or two ambulances to serve the whole population,” he said. “Now, if you take that ambulance out of service for three hours to take a patient to a bigger hospital, you're leaving that community very unprotected from a public safety standpoint."

The FEMA-assigned ambulance crews will be centrally located; based at the Minnesota National Guard’s Camp Riley, near Brainerd.

Crews will be sent out wherever the need is greatest.

But some plans are still being finalized.

"How do we utilize them and how do we utilize them properly?” Hildebrandt asked. “Making sure that we're using all of the resources across the state without having an impact on anyone."

The FEMA ambulance deployment ends on Dec. 4, but MDH says it will likely ask for an additional two-week extension.

Ten of the ambulances are ‘advanced life support’ units—with a paramedic, an EMT and life-saving equipment.

Fifteen are ‘basic life support’ ambulances, where medical monitoring can be performed.

But a big concern is the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday.

Even with the added ambulances, the potential surge worries medical professionals on the front lines.

“I don't know if 25 ambulances is enough for patients when they need to be moved when you're talking about a six-hour drive across the state,” Peterson said. “I really don't know. Only time will tell."


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