Study: EMS calls dropped 26% nationally during pandemic

The University of Buffalo-led study also found that the proportion of EMS-attended deaths doubled around the same time period


By Laura French

BUFFALO, N.Y. — A recent study found that 911 calls for emergency medical services decreased by more than a quarter nationally during the COVID-19 pandemic.

A research team led by University of Buffalo (UB) Professor E. Brooke Lerner, Ph.D., analyzed data from the National Emergency Medical Services Information System (NEMSIS) and found that EMS activations decreased by 26.1% over a six-week period beginning in early March, according to a university news release. The team also found that the proportion of EMS-attended deaths nearly doubled around the same time period. 

University of Buffalo Professor E. Brooke Lerner, Ph.D., vice chair for research in the Department of Emergency Medicine in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, was the lead researcher on a study that found a more than 25% decrease in EMS calls nationally during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo/University of Buffalo)
University of Buffalo Professor E. Brooke Lerner, Ph.D., vice chair for research in the Department of Emergency Medicine in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, was the lead researcher on a study that found a more than 25% decrease in EMS calls nationally during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo/University of Buffalo)

"The public health implications of these findings are alarming," said Lerner, who is the vice chair for research in the Department of Emergency Medicine at UB's Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, in a statement. "When people are making fewer 911 calls but those calls are about far more severe emergencies, 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."

Lerner noted that the increase in the proportion of EMS-attended death suggests that people may be waiting to seek medical care for serious conditions up until the point where their life is in direct danger, possibly out of fear of being exposed to COVID-19 at hospitals or because they don't want to burden healthcare facilities with non-COVID-19-related issues.

“This may mean that future consideration needs to be given to how we message the risks associated with seeking medical care during a pandemic,” said Lerner, according to the news release. “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 said the overall decrease in calls is most likely due to lockdowns and stay-at-home orders creating less opportunity for people to suffer MVC and recreation-related injuries. Lerner added that the results raise concerns about the financial viability of EMS under these types of conditions.

“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,” she stated.

The study was published in the journal Academic Emergency Medicine. Co-authors included Craig D. Newgard, M.D., of Oregon Health and Science University, and N. Clay Mann, M.D, of the University of Utah School of Medicine.

The work was supported by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Office of Emergency Medical Services and the Health Resources and Services Administration of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

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