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Rural Colorado hospitals seeing delays in patient transfers

An emergency physician says her hospitals are sometimes keeping patients for 24 hours before finding a facility who can take them.

COLORADO, USA — Two years into the pandemic, an emergency physician who works in southern Colorado says this is one of the most difficult times for rural hospitals. 

Dr. Laura Edgerley-Gibb said the number of staff calling out sick because of the highly contagious omicron strain of COVID-19 is creating a number of issues in the facilities she works in.

She said the staffing levels at rural hospitals are relatively small to begin with, so when one or two nurses call in sick that makes work challenging for everyone else. 

"Other staff are trying to pick up the slack," she said. "People working long days, multiple hours, long on-call times. I think a lot of people are getting tired and burned out."

Dr. Edgerley-Gibb said her hospitals make room for the patients they can take care of. Nurses are working extra shifts and people are stretching resources to cover those patients. 

But when a patient comes into the emergency department and needs additional services that cannot be offered in their critical access, the patient needs to be transferred to a bigger hospital. 

"Other hospitals are really overrun and having trouble taking patients from outside facilities as well," she said. 

Typically, Dr. Edgerley-Gibb said it took a few hours to find an available bed at a different facility and that other hospital was usually pretty close by. Now it is taking longer. 

"Because all of the larger hospital systems are also overwhelmed, they are holding their own patients in their emergency department and sometimes their emergency department can have 20 or 30 patients sitting there waiting for a bed," she said. "Then they are not in a place where they can take a patient from an outside facility."

According to Dr. Edgerley-Gibb, the length of time to transfer a patient changes over time but there have been times where her hospital is holding patients for up to 24 hours.

Sometimes when they do find a bed for a patient, Dr. Edgerley-Gibb said there can be delays with EMS and flight crews who are working overtime and facing the same issues with staffing. 

"There might be that hospital that is four or even six hours away that can take the patient, so each of those transports may be taking a longer period of time," she said. "Each shift, they may be able to take fewer patients."

Dr. Edgerley-Gibb doesn't want patients to stay home if they need care. She's also hoping people take steps to stay safe and healthy to help slow the spread of COVID-19.

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