Colorado reactivates crisis standards for EMS amid COVID-19 surge, staffing shortages

Colorado’s health department reactivated “crisis standards of care” for emergency medical services Friday evening, saying there is a high demand for ambulances but a shortage of medical workers as COVID-19 cases surge across the state.

This means only the most severe patients will be taken by ambulance to hospitals, with less-urgent patients referred to other health care services. Additionally, ambulances can go to the nearest hospital and some patients may be taken to urgent cares and other non-hospital facilities, according to the guidelines established by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

“There has been a rapid increase in COVID-19 cases, largely due to the highly contagious omicron variant,” Dr. Eric France, Colorado’s chief medical officer, wrote in the letter authorizing the use of standards of care.

He said the surge has placed a “significant strain” on Colorado’s health care system given staffing shortages.

As the omicron variant drives up new infections in Colorado, 1,374 people were hospitalized across the state with confirmed COVID-19 as of Friday, a nearly 40% increase since the most recent low point in hospitalizations on Christmas Day.

The reactivated crisis standards provide guidance for dispatch centers and emergency medical responders on how to determine what kind of treatment to provide — including whether and where a patient should be transported for care — and how to stretch limited workers, according to a news release.

The guidelines also discuss how to provide medical care, including proper personal protective equipment, and how EMS staffers should consider changes to the care they typically provide, such as no longer providing certain life-saving treatment. This includes not transporting or resuscitating patients — such as those in continuous cardiac arrest — who are less likely to survive in order to limit workers’ exposure to the virus, according to the standards.

Coloradans who are sick and in an emergency should still call 911 or go to an emergency department, according to the state health agency.

As of now, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment has not activated crisis standards of care for hospitals and acute care facilities, or for personal protective equipment. The agency, however, activated crisis standards of care for the staffing of health care systems in November.

This is the second time standards of care have been implemented for emergency services; the first occurred early on in the pandemic in April 2020.

The health department encourages anyone ages 5 and older to get vaccinated against the coronavirus.

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