Since the beginning of July, the delta variant’s rapid spread has placed increasing pressure on San Antonio’s emergency medical services, with the number of suspected COVID-19 patients transported to hospitals rising.

On July 1, city emergency services transported seven suspected COVID-19 patients. That number more than doubled by July 16, when EMS transported 16 suspected COVID-19 patients. From there, the total number of EMS transports continued to rise through Aug 12, the last day for which data was available.

On that day, the city of San Antonio experienced a 26-minute period where no EMS units were available to take calls, an extremely rare situation. San Antonio Fire Department spokesman Joe Arrington said that while total unavailability has happened — albeit rarely — in the past, it was “never for that long… typically no longer than a minute or two.”

The gap meant “we’re not transporting heart attacks, traffic accidents, or any sort of medical call,” said City Manager Erik Walsh at the time. “So it is critical. And what we’re doing is working with the hospitals to get our EMS units in and out of there as quickly as possible.”

Fire Chief Charles Hood said the department has seen “record-breaking transportation numbers and responses during this third wave.”

In fiscal year 2020, the San Antonio Fire Department responded to 207,444 fire and medical incidents, Hood told City Council during a budget meeting on Aug. 25. The department projects that number will increase to a total of 226,112 calls this year, with nearly 80% of those being medical calls.

The San Antonio Report requested the number of EMS transports between July 1 and Aug. 12 and the number of coronavirus-related calls during that same period of time. The graph below shows the increase in such calls.

Arrington said from what he can see, the number of COVID-related calls has plateaued since mid-August.

However, he added, "COVID is definitely adding to our workload."

The area’s hospitals also continue to be inundated with COVID-19 patients, but San Antonio Metropolitan Health District Director Claude Jacob said Bexar County’s coronavirus positivity rate and seven-day moving average have both improved.

“We just know that this is still an ongoing brushfire that we're trying to put out,” he told members of the City Council Community Health, Environment, and Culture Committee on Thursday. “With these numbers, we're definitely still in the middle of experiencing our third major wave of this pandemic.”

On Thursday, 1,365 were hospitalized for COVID-19 in Bexar County, a dip from 1,466 just three days before. The area recorded a high of 1,520 hospitalizations in January.

Jacob warned that the drop wasn't enough to relax any vigilance.

“Our hospitalization numbers continue to be alarming,” he said. “Keep in mind that there was no vaccination that was in existence for those previous waves. … It's a testament to how well the vaccines work in preventing hospitalizations and deaths among those infected.”

There were only about 300 available staffed hospital beds as of Wednesday, Jacob said.

Jackie Wang

Jackie Wang is the local government reporter at the San Antonio Report.