Ambulance may not show for H1N1

DeWayne Bartels
Are Peoria's hospitals prepared if H1N1 hits their medical ranks? A special report examines that question is in this week's issue of the Peoria Times-Observer.

Getting an ambulance if you have H1N1 is no longer as easy as dialing 9-1-1. Emergency dispatch operators are now triaging patients over the phone.

Central Illinois has seen an increase in the number of H1N1 influenza cases, with early estimates suggesting one in seven people will contract H1N1.

As the number of people with H1N1 influenza rises, 9-1-1 call volumes could reach a critical point. A 9-1-1 priority dispatch policy has been implemented to identify people with severe symptoms requiring specialty medical care.

Depending on the extent of the H1N1 pandemic, an ambulance or medical care provider may not be available for several hours, days or not at all.

Dr. Cheryl Colbenson, Peoria Area EMS medical director, said, “Because of a significant increase in the number of calls, we want people to be aware that an ambulance might not be available and, often, not necessary. Unless a person has an underlying, extenuating health issue, the H1N1 influenza should be treated as you would seasonal flu.”

Andrew Rand, administrator of Advanced Medical Transport, said the triage procedure is a necessary one. 

“The flu calls are already coming. They run the gamut from the really sick to people who want flu medicine,” he said.

Rand said he has 200 employees, 120 of whom are paramedics and emergency medical technicians. At peak times, he has 19 trucks on the road in Central Illinois, 12 of them in Peoria.

He said an average day’s call load is 115 calls. He said the current number of flu calls they make to a hospital is now at two an hour. If it doubles, Rand said the ambulance service will have problems keeping up.

To compensate, the ambulance service would have to start prioritizing other calls. An example, he said, would be no longer  to respond to ground level falls where the victim did not lose consciousness.

“We would also have to extend the hours our employees work,” Rand said.

Rand said, however, there is no need for panic.

“Panic never solved anything. H1N1 has been described as a virulent creature. But, we now know a lot more about it,” Rand said.

“We have learned how to mitigate the H1N1 Flu.”