Surge in flu patients spurs Chicago Fire Department to add five ambulances

SHARE Surge in flu patients spurs Chicago Fire Department to add five ambulances
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Sun-Times file photo

The Chicago Fire Department on Friday put five more “surge” ambulances on the street — despite the heavy overtime cost— to combat a flu outbreak nearing “pandemic” proportions that has flooded hospital emergency rooms, forcing some to go on “bypass.”

Fire Department spokesman Larry Langford said the spike in flu cases in Chicago and other major cities was triggered, in part, by a flu vaccine that is “only 10 percent effective.”

Dr. Jay Shannon, CEO of Cook County Health and Hospitals Systems said Friday at a news conference that the flu season is “shaping up to be a very serious one.”

So far this season, Cook County Health & Hospitals System alone has confirmed 149 cases, compared to 210 for the entire season last year. Doctors with Loyola Medicine, which includes the main medical center in Maywood and some 30 satellite locations, have 179 confirmed cases during the Christmas week — a four-year high, according to a hospital spokeswoman there.

The wave of flu throughout Chicago has caused a spike in calls for emergency medical services, prompting response times to skyrocket.

The five additional advanced life support ambulances will give Chicago 80 ambulances capable of delivering the most sophisticated level of care. Currently, there are 75 advanced life support ambulances on the streets of Chicago.

“The Chicago Fire Department is adding five surge ambulances to the street fleet today and tomorrow. We will see what the impact will be on patient services,” Langford said Friday.

“But we fear that more of our ambulances will be idling in emergency room parking lots, waiting for beds to become available as the entire hospital network is stressed with flu patients, causing hospitals to go on diversion or be so close to diversion that we are waiting in excess of an hour and a half for beds to become available, keeping our ambulances out of service while the hospital looks for beds.”

Langford noted that Chicago has roughly 32 hospitals in, what he called the Fire Department’s “receiving network.” At one point Thursday, 14 of them were “on bypass.” Their emergency rooms were at capacity, diverting ambulances to other hospitals.

Even more hospitals were on what he called “peak census.” That means they were “one or two patients away” from going on diversion.

“Legally, we cannot transfer the patient until the hospital is able to receive the patient, depending on the patient’s situation,” Langford said.

“A hospital may say they have no monitored beds available. If that’s the case, they literally cannot take the patient off of our gurney and transfer them to a hospital gurney or bed. So, we literally wait until they have one available.”

Earlier this week, Mayor Rahm Emanuel moved to deliver on the promise he made and ignored nearly four years ago: To put “at least” five more advanced life support ambulances on the streets to reduce response times to medical emergencies.

“We’re gonna have – by the end of March – five new ambulances” permanently on the street, the mayor said Friday.

Asked about response times to serious medical emergencies of 30 minutes or more, Emanuel said, “Obviously, I don’t want to see that in any part of the city whether it’s cold or hot or the temperature is livable. My view is to make sure we have a great Fire Department with great EMT and they’re gonna get all the resources they need.”

The long-stalled expansion can’t come soon enough to satisfy Local 2 President Jim Tracy.

“On Jan. 2nd, the city was out of ambulances and Office of Emergency Management and Communications (OEMC) could be heard asking for any available ambulances to respond to a still and box at 2204 North Newland,” Tracy wrote in an email to the Chicago Sun-Times, referring to a fire call.

“Ambulance 7 was on special duty at Humboldt Park and was released to respond, as was Ambulance 33, which was at the Quinn Fire Academy . . . Waiting until there are no ambulances available, then releasing them from special duty puts all of Chicago citizens at a serious risk.”

Joe Davilo, EMS director for Local 2, added, “When you have delays of 30 minutes or greater, that would tell you there’s a greater need.”

On Friday, Langford argued that the flu outbreak was another major factor contributing to the surge in response times.

If the flu outbreak is so severe, why add the five “surge” ambulances for just two days? Why not indefinitely?

“It’s very expensive to go into surge because of overtime. And we have to see what the effect is. We’re not gonna sit around and do nothing. We’re trying to address the problem,” Langford said.


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