Elma Fire Chief describes COVID fifth wave strain on EMS

A high volume of COVID-19 patients has created major challenges for emergency medical service providers statewide; Grays Harbor County is no exception.

At the Elma City Council meeting on Monday, Elma Fire Chief Tyson Boling filled the council in on what his department has been facing during the fifth wave of the COVID pandemic.

“We’ve just been really, really busy,” he said. “Local hospitals are short-staffed, so we’re making a lot of long runs everywhere west of the mountains to drop patients off.”

When asked how often Elma’s Summit Pacific Medical Center was on “divert” status — meaning the facility has announced to EMS that they do not have the capacity to take in any new patients — Boling had a personal story to relate.

“The other day my nephew broke his leg, so my brother brought him up to Summit. They said it would be a five and a half hour wait,” said Boling, who checked and discovered the facility was at that time on divert status. He said that was Friday, and he did not believe Summit went off of divert status until late Sunday or early Monday.

“They were on divert almost all weekend long,” said Boling.

Boling said when facilities are on divert it’s a burden on EMS and patients to a level the general public may not fully understand.

When Summit Pacific Medical Center is on divert status “(it)means that when you call 911 and we show up with an ambulance, we cannot take you to Summit,” he said.

“We have some guidance out right now that if it’s a dire emergency where the patient won’t make it to the next hospital, we have some protocols to go anyway, but other than that, when the normal thing would be to transport you to Summit, we cannot take you to Summit, we have got to go somewhere else.”

Considering when Elma EMS picks up a patient for transport to Summit Pacific it’s about a 20-minute round trip for the crew, trips out of the county can take up hours of limited EMS staff time.

“A trip to St. Peter’s (Medical Center in Olympia) will take you an hour and a half, two hours, and that’s where it becomes hard as we lose our medics out of the county, out of the area for a couple of hours,” said Boling.

A typical shift will have three, as many as four, personnel, two full-time personnel and one part time, with a fourth depending on staffing levels. Boling makes adjustments to maximize his personnel, but with extra trips out of the county and the time those take, resources are often spread thin.

Elma Mayor Jim Sorensen commented, “the good old days were just two years ago where people from Olympia would come out to Elma to get faster service in the ER, and it just doesn’t seem to be that way right now out there, they’re just so overwhelmed everywhere.”

It’s difficult all over. Harbor Regional Health Community Hospital in Aberdeen is frequently on divert status. One council member commented about a friend who recently was experiencing chest pains and went to St. Peter’s “and laid in the emergency room before they were admitted for 48 hours. They were getting health care, but they couldn’t get into the ICU, the coronary care unit for 48 hours.”

Boling is hoping for a return to normalcy as the latest surge seems to have hit a peak across most of the state of Washington, though recent numbers indicate it is still raging in Grays Harbor County.

“Let’s just hope and pray that our hospitals and all the people that work out there can get back to normal, because you can imagine what it would be like to carry your child who’s in great pain in your arms into the emergency room and being told that you’re going to have a five and a half hour wait, rushing back out to your car, and heading out to Olympia,” said Boling.