Genesee County dealing with ambulance shortage, but officials say not to worry

Published: Jan. 25, 2021 at 7:19 PM EST
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FLINT, Mich. (WJRT) - Picture this, you slip and fall in the garage, twist an ankle, call 911 for help.

And then you have to wait for an ambulance.

Genesee County Central Dispatch has been dealing with a shortage of available ambulance units in recent months. The group that oversees the county’s EMS system admits the issue is happening, but says there’s no need to panic.

The Genesee County Medical Control Authority started realizing the problem around Halloween. Since then, the executive director said they’ve had 13 or 14 instances where the county has three or fewer available EMS units to respond to a 911 call -- the most recent coming last Friday.

“The last thing I want to do is have people say, ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t get an ambulance by call 911.’ They’re going to get an ambulance. Might it take a few minutes longer than they used to? Possibly Yes,” said Bruce Trevithick, the executive director of the Genesee County Medical Control Authority.

He cited a few reasons someone may have to wait a few extra minutes for an ambulance right now. It comes down to a shortage in available EMS units to respond.

Here’s why:

  • COVID-19 means patient drop off takes longer.
  • Fewer crews due to COVID-19 exposure and quarantine.
  • Longer time spent sanitizing and preparing rigs.

“At this point, we have to treat every patient as if they have COVID even if they don’t have symptoms, because we know that this disease will present asymptomatically,” Trevithick said.

Genesee County’s EMS system complicates the issue even further. It’s a “free-market system,” which means any company can come in and offer ambulance services. But since 2017, there’s been a decrease in the number of agencies operating in the county.

The Genesee County Medical Control Authority is trying to figure out whether there an actual shortage of ambulances or whether COVID-19 is simply over-taxing the system.

“Has the market, determined that we have a sufficient number to meet the need, or does there need to be more ambulances put on the road? Does there need to be more companies? Does it have to be regulated in some way or changed in some way?” Trevithick asked.

His team plans to revisit the issue after the coronavirus pandemic and look at the system as a whole to determine what is causing the ambulance shortage.

In the meantime, officials have been working on stopgap solutions. Trevithick said only one ambulance is automatically responding to fire calls rather than two.

“(Genesee County) 911 is doing this right now -- trying to, as much as we hate this, hold calls that are not critical calls,” he said. “So, somebody has a minor injury and can wait a little longer. We want to hold off on sending an ambulance to that until we know we have a sufficient number of units on the road to respond to all the really critical cases.”

Trevithick said nobody should panic. He said dispatchers can reach out to surrounding counties for help, which they’ve done twice recently.

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