911 calls were fewer, but more serious, at pandemic's start, study finds

For six weeks in early March, 911 calls for emergency medical services in the U.S. declined, but cases where people died after calling increased exponentially, indicating the emergencies were more serious, a new study shows.

The study, published in Academic Emergency Medicine, included a retrospective analysis of patient care records submitted by more than 10,000 EMS agencies in 47 U.S. states and territories. Researchers gathered the data from the National Emergency Medical Services Information System database. They examined data for the six-week period beginning March 2 for 2020 and the two years prior. 

Deaths in cases where EMS was called to the scene doubled this year, indicating that when 911 calls were made for EMS services, they often involved a serious emergency, researchers found. 

Also, over the study period, 911 calls for EMS services declined by 140,292, or 26.1 percent, this year, compared to the previous two years. 

"The public health implications of these findings are alarming," said E. Brooke Lerner, PhD, first author on the paper and vice chair for research in the emergency medicine department at the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at University of Buffalo (N.Y.). "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."

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