JoCo EMS may change how it responds to 911 calls amid latest COVID-19 surge


The Johnson County EMS System may change how it responds to 911 calls in the wake of the latest COVID-19 surge. Above, Med-Act paramedics and a Shawnee police officer respond to an emergency. Photo credit Mike Frizzell. File photo.

The recent surge in COVID-19 cases has placed added strain on local hospitals’ emergency rooms and Johnson County’s emergency medical response team.

As a result, the Johnson County EMS System is considering possible changes to how it responds to 911 calls.

Ryan Jacobsen, medical director for the Johnson County EMS System, said the circumstances are challenging now, particularly with the rise in 911 call volumes, coupled with a pre-pandemic shortage in emergency providers and staff.

“We started understaffed. Now, you can imagine staffing issues with the pandemic, it’s really complicated things,” Jacobsen, who is also an associate professor of emergency medicine at KU, said. “It’s super challenging.”

Speaking on the University of Kansas Health System’s daily COVID-19 briefing earlier this week, Jacobsen said they’ve begun “actively discussing the option of a 911 response to a patient, and us telling them that we don’t think they don’t need to go to the hospital.”

“That is not the typical norm for EMS providers to provide a medical screen exam like an emergency department would and say that you’re clear and you’re OK to stay at home,” Jacobsen said.

What is typical is EMS workers recommending people be transported to an emergency room to get evaluated for care.

What it could look like in practice

The medical screen exam could potentially look like this:

EMS providers arrive on site, conduct an assessment of the patient, and if the risk appears low — where the patient’s oxygen levels are good, breathing is fine and the risk of death due to COVID-19 is estimated to be low, for instance — then EMS staff would recommend the patient stay at home.

“That is a very abnormal position for a typical 911 EMS to be put in,” Jacobsen said. “So we’re trying to keep ambulances available for the true emergencies: traumatic injuries, car accidents, life-threatening things, and trying to offload unnecessary, mild illness…. Those are unprecedented in our region… and that’s just not normal behavior for us.”

Jacobsen said the EMS system doesn’t want to discourage people from going to the hospital, but he does want to encourage patients to reserve 911 calls for true emergencies and to avoid using a hospital’s emergency room to get tested for COVID-19 when you’ve only been exposed and may not be experiencing severe symptoms or have pre-existing health conditions that put you at greater risk of serious sickness.

A recording of the briefing is available to watch on YouTube. Discussion of this item begins at 11:51.