Story updated Dec. 12 for correction.
Surging COVID-19 hospitalizations are pushing the health systems of Stark County to their limits as hospitals juggle record numbers of COVID-19 patients and demand for emergency services.
Emergency departments at Cleveland Clinic Mercy and Aultman hospitals are seeing longer than usual wait times this week, sometimes stretching as long as nine to 12 hours, according to emergency medical service providers.
North Canton Fire Chief John Bacon said that at one point Monday night there were nine ambulances in the Mercy parking lot, and the four ambulances in his fleet were sometimes waiting between one and two hours to unload patients at the ER.
"The hospitals are seeing a bigger influx, plus our call volumes are seeing a lot," Bacon said. "And everybody now with COVID and the different viruses coming back, people are waiting a little bit longer because they know they can't go to the hospital because there's such a long wait times. But now they're waiting a little longer so that when we do get the call from them, it's an emergency and they have to go to the hospital."
NE Ohio COVID surge grows worse
Northeast Ohio is experiencing a significant rise in hospitalizations, and last week led the state in new COVID-related hospitalizations. That trend has only gotten worse as hospitalizations continue to jump this week.
Cleveland Clinic Mercy Hospital currently has 112 patients with COVID-19, the most yet throughout the pandemic, according to statement from Mercy. Nearby, Cleveland Clinic Akron General has 109 patients with COVID-19, also a record.
“There are longer than normal wait times in our Emergency Departments in Summit and Stark counties. Despite these challenges, we remain committed to meeting the needs of the communities we serve,” the hospital system said in a statement.
Aultman is similar, with 110 COVID-19 positive patients in the system's hospitals, 85% of whom are unvaccinated. Missi Steepleton, executive director for marketing, communications and retail at the hospital, said wait times will be longer as the high capacity persists.
"During these times of influx, we continue to coordinate bed capacity with other local and regional health systems," Steepleton said. "Currently, we are operating at maximum capacity across the system, which includes all types of patients."
According to data from the Ohio Hospital Association, the eastern region of Ohio, which includes Akron, Canton and surrounding areas, is continuing to see the most hospitalizations in the state, with 1 in 3 hospital patients testing positive for COVID-19, and half of intensive care patients hospitalized with COVID-19.
'I've never been in the situation before where we've actually had to tell people we'll get there as soon as we can.'
Health officials have continuously warned throughout the pandemic that overcrowding and long wait times in emergency departments are a consequence of the overburdened and often under resourced health system. When hospital beds fill up, ERs slow down because patients can't be moved as quickly to a regular hospital bed.
When the hospitals get overwhelmed, they have the option to divert patients, meaning emergency services will take patients to a different hospital. On Monday night, Mercy asked emergency responders to divert patients to other hospitals, and Aultman soon followed. But at that point, with no other local hospitals available, the emergency responders were forced to wait outside emergency rooms.
"It puts a strain on the whole entire system, as well as surrounding departments, having to backfill some for some calls," Brewster Fire Capt. Scott Borojevich said.
Canton Fire Capt. Pat Bodnar said the mutual aid that emergency departments practice — where one department can pick up calls for another if there aren't adequate ambulances available — is cracking under the pressure.
With ambulances parked outside of hospitals waiting for their patients to be accepted, new calls start to stack up. Bodnar said in his five years as captain, he's never seen that. It is not uncommon in bigger cities but rare here.
"This is a new world for me. I've never been in the situation before where we've actually had to tell people we'll get there as soon as we can," Bodnar said. "It's kind of scary."
The department does still send emergency vehicles, like firetrucks staffed with paramedics, to wait with callers or provide assistance on scene, including recommending urgent care options rather than the ER.
"We're getting to people in a timely matter right now, but I can't tell you tomorrow, that we're not going to be out of people to send somewhere," Bodnar said. "We're starting to have those discussions about what do we do if we get to that position. We've just never been there before."
Samantha Grafton at WellNow Urgent Care in Massillon said the facility has been fortunate not to be hit nearly as hard as emergency rooms but has experienced its own heightened wait times as long as three to four hours.
"We got people in and out fast, but yeah, we're kind of getting slammed as well," Grafton said. "I don't think we're getting hit as bad as the emergency rooms, I hope, but we have been getting a lot of COVID and having to take a lot of people to emergency rooms."
Already struggling staffing levels make demand challenges harder to handle
The burden of increasing COVID-19 hospitalizations comes as regional health centers continue to grapple with a health worker staffing shortage that began before the pandemic and has only grown worse.
The nursing and health care worker shortages are complex issues without a singular cause, but have been attributed to factors such as the growing population of older Americans, retirements among experienced nurses and burnout, which have only been exacerbated by the pandemic's demand on health workers.
In September, Summa Health in Akron even had to reduce bed capacity to account for staff shortages.
While rumors have circulated that some of the nursing shortage may be due to requirements that health care workers be vaccinated against COVID-19, health officials say that is not the case.
"The vaccine mandate does not affect the current situation, as it is not being enforced while we await further guidance based on court decisions," Steepleton said. "However, workforce challenges continue to affect this situation across the region and the nation."
Currently, 71% of Aultman Hospital employees and, as of Nov. 6, 80% of Cleveland Clinic staff systemwide are vaccinated against COVID-19. Hospitals throughout the region recently paused vaccine mandates for their systems as legal challenges to President Joe Biden's Jan. 4 vaccine mandate work their way through the legal system.
Correction: Cleveland Clinic has reported that 80% of workers across its hospital system are vaccinated. This story has been updated to reflect the percentage was not specifically for Cleveland Clinic Mercy Hospital.
Reach out to Sam Zern at email@example.com or 330-580-8322. You can also find her on Twitter @sam_zern.
This article originally appeared on The Repository: Emergency wait times stretch as COVID-19 overwhelms Stark hospitals