The callers want to know about where to get COVID tests. Others ask about how to sign up for a vaccine. A growing number dial in to complain about some of the mildest coronavirus symptoms.
All important inquiries — just not the kind to bug 911 about.
Yet as the pandemic rages on, the emergency line in East Baton Rouge has been overwhelmed by people treating it like their own personal Siri or Alexa. Officials say there’s been a massive uptick in callers treating 911 like an informational hotline for prosaic questions about the fast-spreading, ever-mutating coronavirus.
“We’re getting a lot of 911 calls from the public wanting to get COVID tests or vaccines,” Baton Rouge EMS spokesman Brad Harris said. “It puts a huge stress on the system.”
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Emergency services in the capitol region and other cities throughout the nation confronted the same problem in the early months of the pandemic. Now, after a drawn-out lull, the non-urgent 911 calls are again intensifying amid a renewed surge in the virus quickened by the wildly contagious delta variant.
This past month alone, Harris said the East Baton Rouge 911 dispatch center saw an 880 percent spike in COVID-related calls compared to June. Most come from people asking about symptoms nowhere near serious enough to need hospitalization, let alone an ambulance ride.
The non-emergency calls put immense strain on paramedics, first-responders and healthcare workers already stretched to a breaking point, he lamented.
Hospitals throughout the capital region and southeast Louisiana have been grappling with some of the highest numbers of COVID-sick patients seen since the dawn of the pandemic.
“People either just want to get a COVID test or the vaccine,” Harris said, “and they’re tying up emergency room beds, which becomes a trickle down effect when hospitals are at capacity.”
Bombarding 911 with non-urgent calls holds up ambulances, which have to triage and transfer patients based on need. If too many are waiting for a hospital room at the same time, Harris said, that means fewer ambulances available to respond to real emergencies.
All too often, Harris said, people call 911 for something annoying-but-tolerable, like a sore throat. Since EMS would never deny anyone an ambulance, he said paramedics rush to the scene.
“But typically what happens is we’ll get get there and talk to them and say, ‘Look, you don’t need to go to the hospital,’” he said in a recent interview, “and the patient ends up saying, ‘Oh, OK, I didn’t know that. I don’t need you anymore.’”
That’s precious time lost, Harris noted, for something the caller could have just looked up online.
There’s a simple fix, though. EMS officials say people just need to steer non-emergency COVID questions away from 911 and ER units and toward the proper channels.
The hard part is getting the word out. But local leaders and first-responders are doubling-down trying.
For starters, Harris said, people should check out an online portal launched by East Baton Rouge Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome’s office: brla.gov/covidtest.
The website boasts a wealth of information about where to get tested, where to get vaccinated and what to do in case of infection. Those without reliable internet access can call the city’s COVID-19 hotline at (855) 453-0774.
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The more people direct their inquiries to the proper channels, be it a family doctor or a city hotline, officials say, the better frontline workers can heed emergencies and life-or-death calls.
For anything less, Harris said, his message is clear.
“Don’t call 911.”