Stress on hospitals forces ERs to try to divert patients, then take them anyway

855 COVID-positive patients in area hospitals

SAN ANTONIO – As hospitals fill up with more COVID-19 patients, they’re requesting that ambulances take patients elsewhere. But they’re also frequently being told that’s not possible.

The process, known as ER diversion, happens when an emergency room is dealing with numerous patients and requests emergency medical services (EMS) crews divert to other hospitals for a few hours to give them time to clear their current patient load. However, if too many hospitals in the same area request diversions at the same time, the Southwest Texas Regional Advisory Council and San Antonio Fire Department override the requests.

“Diversion override means everybody’s on divert. Then everybody’s going to have to be open because the ambulances have to have somewhere to go,” said Eric Epley, executive director of the Southwest Texas Regional Advisory Council (STRAC). “So diversion override is being used frequently over the past, say, 10 days. We’ve had, you know, eight or 10 of them just over the weekend. And so we are -- when I said we’re really tight, that’s because we’re having a lot of diversion.”

It’s little wonder why. The number of COVID-positive patients in Bexar County hospitals had shot up to 855 on Monday. Epley says hospitals have already been dealing with higher volumes overall and staffing shortages.

A spokeswoman for University Hospital told KSAT via email that emergency departments had been busy before the latest COVID-19 spike due to patients who had previously delayed care because of the pandemic.

ER diversion doesn’t mean an emergency room is completely closed. People who show up on their own are still admitted, and EMS can override the request on an individual basis.

Epley says the number of recent diversions is unusual and shows the stress health systems are under. However, he says, it doesn’t mean patients won’t get treated.

“Well, first of all, we’re going to be able to care for anybody that comes into the emergency room. If you come to the hospital with an emergency condition, you’re going to get taken care of. That’s step one,” Epley said. “Step two, though, be patient, because if you have a non-life-threatening condition, it’s going to take a little longer than it normally would. But that’s to be expected when you see these kinds of rises in volume. That’s why it’s so critical for people to get their vaccine and to try to stay healthy as best they can because that helps the entire system.”


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About the Author:

Garrett Brnger is a reporter with KSAT 12.