Hour waits for ambulances, low vaccination among first responders strain emergency service in St. Pete

As healthcare workers and community leaders beg people to get the COVID-19 vaccine, the city of St. Petersburg is dealing with problems in its own house. 

Apparently, too many city workers in fire rescue and city police aren’t getting the shot, and when they get sick, the staffing shortages are noticeable.

Right now in Pinellas County, officials say it’s taking up to an hour to get medical help to 911 callers, many of whom are calling for help related to COVID-19 infection.

The city isn’t given an exact number of how many unvaccinated employees there are, but says it is surprisingly low. The city held a town hall for unvaccinated workers to hear from healthcare professionals who tried to encourage them to get the shot. 

Right now, city employees are required to wear masks when they come into contact with anyone. And the city is working with attorneys to see if it’s allowed, through the governor’s order, to require face coverings inside city buildings. 

The city says its next step is to possibly require all city workers to be vaccinated. The mayor says there’s clearly a hesitancy because the number of city workers, particularly first responders, who have been vaccinated is very low.

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"I’m obviously very disappointed in that you’re putting the public at risk," said Mayor Rick Kriseman.

The mayor said, in the last month, a current city employee and a recently retired employee have died recently from COVID -- and they had not been vaccinated.   

There are also concerns about first responders missing work, creating additional scheduling problems for an already strained system.

Ambulances are tied up on COVID-19 related calls. In some cases, they’ve had to load people onto fire trucks to get them to the hospital.

The director of EMS and fire for the county says in July, under normal conditions, about 98% of 911 patients arrive at hospitals by EMS within 15 minutes. 

But the delta variant’s rapid transmission through the unvaccinated is increasing demand for emergency services. County Administrator Barry Burton says right only 50-60% are getting to the ER with 15 minutes. And for 10% of the patients, it’s taken an hour or more.

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Burton said Sunstar Paramedics, the county’s contracted ambulance service, and fire rescue departments have increased the number of ambulances on duty during peak periods. But until this wave is under control, it will continue to stress aspects of the healthcare system.

They are begging people to do the only thing that will end the pandemic: get the vaccine.