Across America, COVID-19 has contributed to more than 200,000 deaths since March.
But at the same time, fewer people have been dialing 911 for medical emergencies like strokes and heart attacks, possibly due to a fear of contracting the novel coronavirus at a hospital.
As the demand for emergency medical assistance plummeted earlier this year, the nonprofit organizations that provide ambulance services have found themselves on financial life support.
That’s what’s happening at SouthBridge EMS—which provides EMT and ambulance services to Bridgeville, South Fayette, and Cecil.
Since March, SouthBridge has seen 760 fewer patients than it would during a normal year. As a result, the organization expects a $280,000 budget shortfall for this year.
“We have definitely seen the effects of COVID-19 and people’s fear of being exposed to the virus,” said Dan Miller, executive director of SouthBridge EMS. “Times were financially tough for EMS agencies across the state and nation before COVID-19. Now they’ve definitely gotten worse.”
The health risk posed by the novel coronavirus is real. SouthBridge alone has transported numerous COVID-19 patients to hospitals this year, Miller said. Some of those patients later died as a result the virus. And now, EMTs treat every patient as a potential COVID case.
But fear of the coronavirus is causing some people to ignore symptoms of even more immediately lethal conditions like heart attacks.
Only half of American adults said that they would call 911 right now if they thought they were having a heart attack or stroke, according to a recent survey. And when those people finally do call for help, EMS workers are encountering more serious emergencies than normal.
Here in the Greater Bridgeville Area, there was a spike in at-home deaths during the early days of Pennsylvania’s stay-at-home orders.
“People fear going to the hospital and getting COVID-19,” Miller said. “Often they ignore their symptoms‚ to their detriment.”
Nationwide, ambulance calls are down 26%.
Small, suburban ambulance services have long walked a financial tightrope. Most of their revenue comes from billing health insurance providers on a per-patient basis. But while operating costs have grown 67% durin g the past two decades, insurance payouts have increased by just 20%.
Earlier this year, when call volume hit rock bottom, SouthBridge stayed afloat by downsizing and taking out a Paycheck Protection Program loan. Emergency grants from federal, state, and county agencies also helped keep things running.
During the past month, a modest uptick in ambulance requests allowed SouthBridge to return to full staffing.
Things are far from normal, though.
For the past 30 years, SouthBridge could reliably expect a certain number of call in a given day, week, or month.
But now, ambulance requests are arriving in wild, inexplicable bursts like Miller has never seen before.
“We are seeing swings of two days with only two or three calls,” he said “Then the next day, there will be 25 calls. There is no rhythm or reason to these drastic fluctuations.”
It’s a delicate balancing act—keeping enough EMTs on call for the next blast of calls, while working within the constraints of a budget that continues to drown in red.
Yet, Miller is optimistic that SouthBridge will find make it through the crisis.
“We will survive as a service,” he said, “but we’ve struggled through some staffing changes and we will delay the replacement of some equipment.”
SouthBridge is currently preparing to launch its annual fall donation drive. In pre-COVID times, the money raised would go toward things like new protective gear or new, improved cardiac monitors.
This year will different. This year, the donation drive is an all-out effort to meet basic operating costs.
“More than ever we need the community’s help during this drive,” Miller said.