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I-TEAM: COVID-19 creating deadly consequences when it comes to hospital wait times, capacity

Published: Aug. 20, 2020 at 6:43 PM EDT
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AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) - Widespread and expanding community spread of the virus is impacting Georgia’s healthcare system. ICU beds are now at 85 percent capacity throughout the state. Augusta University Medical Center and University Hospital are among the dozens of hospitals diverting ICU patients to other hospitals over the last two weeks.

Meanwhile, EMS crews are being tied up for longer periods at hospitals while waiting on rooms for their patients, leaving few available ambulances for emergencies.

EMS transported 91-year-old Doris Dunham to university hospital on July 15. She went into cardiac arrest while waiting nearly two hours for a room.

Every framed picture and every piece of furniture brings a tidal wave of emptiness over Francis Johnson and her brother, John Dunham.

“We come to see her every day, so I miss that. When I come over here she isn’t here -- it’s hard,” Johnson said.

They knew their 91-year-old mother’s time was coming soon but the way she left this Earth haunts them.

Dunham’s blood sugar spiked while at Gibson Health and Rehab on July 14. Records state she was lethargic and would not respond verbally. The facility called Thomson-McDuffie Fire and EMS and called ahead to the hospital to let them know they were on their way.

EMS reports show McDuffie County arrived at University Hospital with Dunham at 6:46 p.m. Records state Dunham was placed on a lower priority than less critical patients. This means she would have to wait, and so would the EMS crew which brought her to the hospital, for a room. In the ambulance business, this period of time when an ems crew is waiting with a patient to be admitted into a hospital is called “holding the wall.” Thomson-McDuffie County EMS held the wall for one hour and 49 minutes with Dunham before she went into cardiac arrest.

“I think it’s awful that she laid there and everybody that walked by or everyone who was out there on the wall saw her die by herself,” Johnson said.

Dunham died at 8:46 p.m.

We obtained emails between University and McDuffie County EMS about circumstances surrounding her death. The hospital and ems disagree on exactly where she went into cardiac arrest at the hospital but the email exchange makes one thing abundantly clear: both EMS and the hospital are overwhelmed.

The deputy chief of emergency services in McDuffie County writes:

“As I stressed with you, previously our crews need to be back in McDuffie County ASAP. They are not only medical professionals but firefighters and rescuers needed to answer calls.”

We requested wall time and ambulance transport data from Georgia’s Department of Public Health. We found McDuffie County’s average wall or wait time at University Hospital last July was 14 minutes. In July 2020, it’s 38 minutes. We found the average wall time increased for all ambulance providers at University this July. Data shows EMS services are experiencing longer average wall times at Augusta University Medical Center.

For county agencies like McDuffie County, which only has four ambulances -- longer wall times mean fewer ambulances available to answer calls. The deputy chief continues to write: “Time spent in the emergency department monitoring patients due to the facility not being able to, is time they are not able to answer calls in McDuffie County.”

Overall patients arriving via ambulances to area hospitals skyrocketed in July.

State data shows a 74 percent increase in the number of patients coming by ems to university this July compared to last. At Augusta University, it’s a 132 percent increase. At Doctors, it’s a 183 percent increase. A surge of patients coming to hospitals is putting many facilities on diversion throughout the state.

The administrator director of emergency and community services at University replies in her email back to McDuffie County EMS: “Our facility is on total diversion currently.”

Diversion means a hospital has reached capacity.

We have been tracking hospital diversions since Aug. 10. University and AU’s ICU have been on diversion nearly every day since then. Some days, even the er at University is on diversion.

Back in march Gov. Brian Kemp issued stay at home orders to give hospitals time to avoid this very thing.

“In addition, new models show hospitals will need more time to prepare for hospital surge capacity,” Kemp said.

University Hospital has a disclaimer listed on Dunham’s medical records: “COVID-19 infections and transmission risks put heavy strains healthcare resources. The impact of COVID-19 on all emergency aspects of care, including the impact to patient seeking care of for other reasons outside of COVID-19, is unavoidable.”

John and Francis find comfort with each other now.

“Maybe someone else mother is lying out in the hall,” Johnson said.

But they also wonder how many others could die waiting on care too.

University Hospital tells us while opening up the COVID unit at Summerville has helped with bed capacity. Those additional patients along with additional safety precautions have contributed to recent delays. The hospitals say they are currently reviewing the process to improve times.

Copyright 2020 WRDW/WAGT. All rights reserved.

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