As hospitalizations rise, San Bernardino County limits ambulance dispatches

San Bernardino County health workers at a community drive-through sample collection event this year.
San Bernardino County Department of Public Health workers at a community drive-through sample collection event this year.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)
Share via

As COVID-19 hospitalizations continue to spike, ambulances in San Bernardino County are no longer responding to every sick person who calls 911.

People with relatively minor ailments will still have paramedics come to their aid, who will assist them on the spot or perhaps recommend that they go to urgent care.

But ambulances will be reserved for people with life-threatening emergencies such as a heart attack or trouble breathing due to COVID-19.


The decision was made by San Bernardino County officials Thanksgiving morning as the volume of 911 calls increased by 25% over a 24-hour period, driven by the COVID-19 surge.

“We don’t have enough ambulances in the system to support the volume of 911 calls coming in,” said Eric Sherwin, public information officer for the San Bernardino County Fire Department. “The hospital emergency departments are being impacted both from ambulance traffic and people driving themselves to the emergency room. That creates a backup in the system.”

Ambulances have waited for up to five hours to deliver patients to a bed, Sherwin said, and cannot answer other calls during that time.

California law typically requires that an ambulance be dispatched for every 911 call, no matter the level of emergency. That means someone calling about a headache or a sore throat is as entitled to an ambulance as someone suffering a major injury.

In June, the state gave San Bernardino County permission to waive that requirement if necessary.

The goal now is to save ambulances for patients in dire situations. The policy will be in effect for as long as necessary and applies to all 20,000 square miles within the county.


Coronavirus-related hospitalizations have reached their highest number in the county since the start of the pandemic.

On Monday, 856 confirmed coronavirus patients were hospitalized in San Bernardino County. Of those, 177 were in intensive care.

Similar records are being set throughout the state. There are 8,240 hospital patients statewide with a confirmed case of coronavirus — twice as many as two weeks ago.

Los Angeles and Riverside counties also hit their highest number of hospitalized patients after a surge in coronavirus cases.

Riverside County is considering a similar change in its ambulance policy if the strain on resources worsens.