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See the latest news and updates about COVID-19 and its impact on the Charlotte region, the Carolinas and beyond.

Mecklenburg County EMS Understaffed As Hospitals Fill With COVID Patients

Steve Harrison

Medic, the agency that provides emergency medical services in Mecklenburg County, says its staff are stretched thin as they transport a growing number of COVID-19 patients to the region’s hospitals.

Jonathan Studnek, Medic’s deputy director, said the agency's paramedics and EMTs are working mandatory overtime shifts because of a staff shortage of around 45 people. And the agency’s ambulances are picking up an average of 25 COVID-19 patients daily compared to around one or two each day earlier in the summer.

Meanwhile, facing a crush of patients, he said every area hospital doesn’t always have a bed available.

“These patients who … we would take to the emergency department, there would be a bed waiting and staff ready to treat them. That capacity is not there,” Studnek said.

According to Studnek, if a hospital is overwhelmed with patients, it can “go on diversion” for a few hours and tell Medic to reroute patients to other hospitals while it waits for beds to open back up. Studnek said that currently, no more than two Mecklenburg County hospitals are on diversion at any given time.

The lack of available beds also affects patients who don’t have COVID-19.

“People still have heart attacks," Studnek said. "People still break their arm.”

He added: “It just wears you down, day after day, to see sick folks that we have to care for differently because we have such capacity issues within the community.”

On Wednesday, 456 patients were in the hospital with COVID-19 in Mecklenburg County, according to the latest available county numbers. That’s roughly 12 times the number of patients hospitalized with the disease in the county in early July, but about 100 fewer hospitalizations than during the peak of the winter coronavirus surge.

Charlotte’s two hospital systems, Atrium Health and Novant Health, have said they are monitoring their patient numbers carefully.

“The delta variant has increased hospitalizations by 800% since the end of June, which is resulting in fewer beds being available,” Atrium spokesperson Dan Fogleman said in an emailed statement.

Novant said it is “ready to activate additional surge planning scenarios” if necessary.

Neither hospital system as of Friday evening had postponed all elective surgeries, as both did in 2020, though Atrium said in a statement that, “There may be instances … where a patient is rescheduled for a surgical procedure.”

Both systems say that at least 90% of patients hospitalized with COVID-19 have not been vaccinated.

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Claire Donnelly is WFAE's health reporter. She previously worked at NPR member station KGOU in Oklahoma and also interned at WBEZ in Chicago and WAMU in Washington, D.C. She holds a master's degree in journalism from Northwestern University and attended college at the University of Virginia, where she majored in Comparative Literature and Spanish. Claire is originally from Richmond, Virginia. Reach her at cdonnelly@wfae.org or on Twitter @donnellyclairee.