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Study: 911 calls for EMS dropped by over 25 percent nationwide amid coronavirus

An NYU Langone Health ambulance in Kips Bay during the coronavirus pandemic on May 24 in New York City.
An NYU Langone Health ambulance in Kips Bay during the coronavirus pandemic on May 24 in New York City.Noam Galai/Getty Images

Emergency 911 calls for medical help plummeted by more than 25 percent nationwide during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a recently published University of Buffalo study.

The study covered a six-week period beginning in early March and included an analysis of patient care records submitted by more than 10,000 EMS agencies across 47 states and territories, the university said Thursday in a statement. The findings were published online June 17 in Academic Emergency Medicine.

According to the study, during a six-week period beginning in early March, 911 calls for emergency medical services dropped by 26.1 percent compared with the prior two years.

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However, the study found, EMS-attended deaths have doubled, suggesting that when such calls were made, they often involved a far more serious emergency, researchers said in a statement from the university.

“The public health implications of these findings are alarming,” said E. Brooke Lerner, first author of the study and professor and vice chair for research in the Department of Emergency Medicine in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at the university.

Lerner added that when people make fewer 911 calls but those calls involve more serious issues, “it means that people with urgent conditions are likely not getting the emergency care they need in a timely way. The result is increased morbidity and mortality resulting from conditions not directly related to exposure to SARS-CoV2.”

In Massachusetts, officials have repeatedly urged residents during the pandemic to call 911 if they’re having an emergency, and they’ve also stressed that hospitals are safe for medical treatment unrelated to COVID-19.

“The doubling of deaths and cardiac arrests during this relatively short period of time, from March through May, demonstrates that people who need emergency health care may be delaying care such that their lives are actually in jeopardy,” Lerner said.

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She pointed to two possible causes for the drop in 911 calls, according to the statement: fear of contracting COVID-19 at the hospital and reluctance to burden health facilities with non-virus matters.

“This may mean that future consideration needs to be given to how we message the risks associated with seeking medical care during a pandemic,” Lerner said in the statement. “At the same time that we are stressing how to stay safe from COVID-19, it may also be necessary to stress how important it is to continue to seek care for serious conditions unrelated to the novel coronavirus.”

Lerner also referenced the fiscal challenges brought on by the pandemic.

“The financial strain on EMS agencies will have long-term ramifications for maintaining this important safety net for our communities, especially those agencies whose revenue is based solely on patient transports,” Lerner said in the school’s release.

Coauthors of the study were Dr. Craig D. Newgard of Oregon Health and Science University and Dr. N. Clay Mann of the University of Utah School of Medicine, the statement said.

Federal agencies, including the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Office of Emergency Medical Services, and the Health Resources and Services Administration of the US Department of Health and Human Services supported the study, according to the statement.

On Friday, Boston EMS officials said that while overall calls for emergency medical services were down locally at the height of the pandemic, the work for EMTs and paramedics was, in fact, more taxing during that period, since first responders must be more meticulous and deliberate with every call.

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For example, the agency said, as of Thursday Boston EMS personnel had donned full personal protective gear for 10,392 incidents where COVID-19 was either confirmed or suspected during the 911 call screening process. And, the agency said. calls have started to return to their pre-COVID-19 volume during the past few weeks.


Travis Andersen can be reached at travis.andersen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TAGlobe.