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COVID spike strains Clearwater police, fire, ambulance service

High hospital loads are disrupting ambulance runs, and understaffed police are having to pull back from community outreach, officials say.
Clearwater officials say the spike in COVID-19 cases has flooded Pinellas County hospitals, which means city fire crews have had to take on some of the transports normally handled by Sunstar Paramedics ambulances.
Clearwater officials say the spike in COVID-19 cases has flooded Pinellas County hospitals, which means city fire crews have had to take on some of the transports normally handled by Sunstar Paramedics ambulances. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]
Published Aug. 6

CLEARWATER — The recent spike of coronavirus cases in Pinellas County is having significant impacts on the city’s public safety agencies, from reduced staffing in the police department to Fire & Rescue teams being overburdened with ambulance transports.

On Thursday, 26 Clearwater employees were not working because of reasons related to COVID-19, the highest number at one time since the pandemic began last year, City Manager Bill Horne told the City Council this week.

The police department has 12 cases and seven additional people in quarantine, adding to an already stressed workforce dealing with high turnover due to the political climate around law enforcement, Chief Dan Slaughter said.

Slaughter said the police department is down 46 people, reducing patrol volume by nearly 25 percent. He said minimum staffing is being maintained by relying on overtime and pulling officers from community outreach.

“It will impact and limit our ability to do our normal outreach and community policing functions,” he said, “and to even handle some of the lower level calls that aren’t necessarily police responsibility but ones that we have always done because of our demands on our community to have a police force that is a high-service police force.”

Clearwater Fire & Rescue Chief Scott Ehlers said his department has five line personnel and eight administrators out due to the coronavirus. But his larger struggle is with hospital transport demand over the past few weeks.

Sunstar Paramedics normally handles most ambulance transport through its contract with Pinellas County, leaving Clearwater Fire & Rescue to bring 21 people to the hospital in 2020.

But since January, the city department has done 167 transports, 130 of which were in the last 45 days, Ehlers said.

The load is made worse because Sunstar is being delayed at hospitals and unable to drop-off patients for “upwards of three hours,” Ehlers said. This is resulting in a condition where Sunstar does not have enough units available.

Earlier this week, Pinellas County administrator Barry Burton gave a similar account. He told the Board of County Commissioners that hospitals are overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients, nearly all of them unvaccinated, causing serious delays in ambulance drop-off times.

Ehlers said Clearwater is able to pick up some slack because all of the department’s fire rescue vehicles are equipped with Advanced Life Support services. But he said Clearwater is the most northern department in Pinellas County with this capability.

He said Clearwater had to respond as far as Tarpon Springs recently to transport a patient to the hospital.

“The system is getting squeezed right now,” Ehlers said.

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