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Packed Northeast Ohio ERs are tying up ambulances and could delay services, officials warn

The emergency room at Summa Health in Akron. [Annie Wu / Ideastream Public Media]
The emergency room at Summa Health in Akron

Northeast Ohio health officials are asking the public to stay out of emergency rooms if they are looking for COVID-19 tests or experiencing mild cold-like symptoms.

A crush of a patients has flooded ERs in recent weeks and is stressing not only hospital staff, but also local ambulance service, Summit County officials said Monday.

“It’s busy. All ERs are packed. Triage is packed. ER wait time does indirectly affect services because I have less people to respond to the next call,” said Plain Township Fire Chief Chuck Shalenberger.

That’s because medics have to wait for hospital staff to accept their patient before the ambulance can return to service, he explained.

“When any ambulance gets there and [the patient's] not critical, they have to register them into triage,” Shalenberger said. “It’s like a big holding pattern. They’re just so overloaded with people. I’ve had an ambulance at the hospital for over an hour trying to unload.”

That ambulance can’t respond to other emergency calls while it’s waiting to unload.

Plain Township has five ambulances in service daily taking patients to hospitals in Stark and Summit counties, according to Shalenberger.

The situation has not gotten so dire that the township has been without ambulances to respond to emergency calls, but Shalenberger worries about smaller departments.

“If you’re a small department and you only have one ambulance, that is critical,” Shalenberger said.

The issue is affecting ambulance service throughout Summit County, said Health Commissioner Donna Skoda.

In some cases, the county is relying on private ambulance companies to transport patients, she said.

Summit County ambulance crews “have done a yeoman’s job of serving all the 911 and trying to get people to the hospital for the appropriate level of care,” said Skoda. “Certainly, we want people to call 911 if they’re not feeling well or experiencing a medical emergency.”

But those with cold-like symptoms or looking for a COVID-19 test are crowding emergency rooms.

“Those are the individuals who should not be in the emergency room because it slows down the entire process,” she said.

Because of the COVID-19 surge and the increased demand for emergency services, COVID-19 tests are no longer available at Northeast Ohio emergency rooms unless a patient is being admitted to the hospital, according to a spokesperson for the Cleveland Clinic.

In Cleveland, the issue hasn’t caused problems for ambulance service, an official said.

The best thing the public can do to help first responders is get vaccinated or a booster against COVID-19, they said.

Stephanie is the deputy editor of news at Ideastream Public Media.