Polk Fire Chief: Avoid Calling 9-1-1, If Possible

Lakeland Regional Health

With ambulances stacking up at the Lakeland Regional Health Emergency Room and response times declining under the strain of the COVID-19 surge, Polk County’s fire chief advises residents to avoid calling 9-1-1 if at all possible.

“If you can avoid using the 9-1-1 system, this is probably a good time to do that,” Robert Weech told Polk County commissioners Tuesday. “The system is under strain. Certainly if you have an emergency, stroke, heart attack or if you have an accident, certainly call 9-1-1. But if you have other ways of getting medical care, you need to exhaust those at this time so that we can deal with those other bigger emergencies.” 

Polk’s emergency medical services division usually respond to around 280 9-1-1 calls per day, but calls have averaged 340 a day in recent weeks and have reached 400, The Ledger reported.

All visits to Lakeland Regional’s emergency department have been up significantly for the last month as the hospital’s COVID patient load has spiked. Visits averaged around 1,500 per week between January and mid-July, according to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services data. Weekly visits exceeded 2,000 for the first time the week of July 23 and reached 2,447 the week of July 30.

On Monday, Lakeland Regional had 411 patients who had tested positive for COVID-19, The Ledger reported based on a Facebook post from Dr. Daniel Haight, the hospital’s infectious disease specialist. Of those, 49 of those were on ventilators and 65 were on high-flow oxygen, and 95% of ICU patients with COVID-19 were unvaccinated.

“Right now, while our system is being taxed, we are still holding up and able to provide our normal level of service,” Weech said. “We just ask that, under the circumstances, if it isn’t an absolute emergency to find another way for medical care other than calling 9-1-1.”

After fire chief gave his update on ambulances, County Commissioner Bill Braswell said on Facebook that he will recommend today that the county contract with non-emergency ambulance services for COVID cases, preserving Polk EMS for “for heart attacks, strokes, car crashes etc.  I know our chief will continue to try and keep our county EMS service running at all cost but we cannot let it fail.”