Pandemic causing debilitating shortage for Iowa EMS system

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IOWA — When it comes to ambulance services, seconds can save lives. “Time is breathing, time is muscle and those delays can negatively impact outcomes,” said Mark McCulloch, immediate past president of the Iowa EMS Association.

Under the pandemic and with many Iowa hospitals overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients, McCulloch says those valuable seconds to help a patient suffering from an injury or health issue have gotten longer. “It is tough to explain to someone that we are taking you to the best place possible but you still are going to have to wait a few hours,” said McCulloch.

For Bob Libby, CEO of CARE Ambulence, which serves Waterloo, Fairfield and Iowa City, the best place with any space has been out of state. Libby said, “We’ve had to transport them way longer distances. We’ve taken people down to St. Louis or Minneapolis just because that is the only available bed.”

Long hours, stress and fears of COVID-19 have also led to burnout, retirement or career changes. “I have probably 20 spots that are open,” said Libby.

This past October, the American Ambulance Association wrote to the U.S. House of Representatives for help. They said they face an annual 20% to 30% turnover rate. This is from a survey of over 20,000 EMS members. If that pace continues for four years, you have a full 100% turnover. It is an issue they are facing right here in Iowa. McCulloch said, “We don’t have that younger new generation filling in those shoes. They are basically aging out and our biggest concern is leaving communities without coverage.”

With the omicron variant surging, getting Iowa’s EMS system back to full strength could be life saving to the community and the profession. Libby said, “We are no longer bleeding, we are hemorrhaging. We have to get more people involved in EMS.”

EMS organizations say they are making a push to get information out to local high schools and increase awareness of their profession. They also hope to get back into the Future Ready Iowa program to gain more employees.

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