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Houston Fire Chief Discusses The Strain COVID Is Putting On Emergency Medical Workers

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Once again, medical workers are stretched thin. More ICU units are reaching their capacity, and medical professionals and EMTs are struggling to keep up with the surge of seriously ill patients from COVID. This week Houston, Texas, reported more than 4,000 patients currently in the hospitals for COVID-19. That's a record for the city. Even ordering an ambulance is difficult. Patients and paramedics are facing longer wait times on emergency room admissions as well. And joining us to talk more about the situation is Houston's fire chief, Samuel Pena.

Welcome to the program.

SAMUEL PENA: Thanks for having us on.

CORNISH: Now, you've said that the number of ambulance transports in Houston - that that number has jumped 25% since the delta variant surge. Give us some context. I mean, how many ambulance rides on average would your first responders be making?

PENA: What we were averaging was about 400 transports to the hospital per day. In the last two months, we've been averaging about 500 per day. That's a huge increase in the demand and the number of transports that we're having to make as a result of this spike in the pandemic.

CORNISH: When your paramedics arrive on the scene, what are they seeing?

PENA: Well, look. The reality is that the area hospitals are getting filled up. And what we're experiencing is a delay in our ability to transfer our patients from the stretcher - from the ambulance stretcher onto the emergency departments. Just a few weeks ago, we had an incident where a patient waited for over five hours on a stretcher. The hospital actually did all the evaluations of the patient and was still on our stretcher. So look. That situation is not good for the patient. Certainly, it's not good for our EMTs. And it's not good for the community because what's happening is it's causing a lack of resources to be available for the next 911 call that comes into the system.

CORNISH: How does this differ from last spring, last summer?

PENA: Last summer there was a stay-at-home order here in the city of Houston and the state of Texas. It resulted in a lowering in the number of incidents that we would normally see, namely motor vehicle accidents, other traumas that happen just through the day-to-day course of business. The difference now is that that stay-at-home order is not in place. And so the normal business is happening. In addition to that, we're seeing an increase in the number of 911 calls. And the majority of those are as related to symptoms or illnesses related to COVID-19.

CORNISH: And we're hearing - that was a siren behind you, right?

PENA: Yes. And they go on all day.

CORNISH: We've heard about kind of frustration and burnout in the medical community. What about EMTs and first responders? How is this latest wave kind of affecting the people who are doing this work for the city?

PENA: We've been in this fight for the last 18 months. So our folks are battle weary. And look. We're not immune to this virus, either. All the hazards that are present in our community as a result of this virus also visit upon our first responders, our firefighters, EMTs, police officers, all city employees. Right now we have close to 60 firefighters that are positive with coronavirus and another 40 or 50 that are symptomatic - so have had coronavirus and now having to return to work because of the lingering effects of the virus. Again, don't wait until you or a family member or a loved one needs the emergency response services until you take the precautions necessary to combat this coronavirus.

CORNISH: That was fire chief Samuel Pena from Houston.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHRISTINE AND THE QUEENS SONG, "TILTED") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.