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Demand for patient air transport rises as rural coronavirus cases increase

Paramedics on medical helicopters are busy transporting patients from remote areas as well as between city hospitals.

HOUSTON — The COVID-19 pandemic has strained medical services in Houston and across Texas for the past month. Paramedics have been busier than ever, including those working onboard medical helicopters.

A spokesman for one patient transport helicopter company says he expects the number of hospital transports will increase as U.S. health officials report the number of coronavirus cases is rising in rural areas.

“It is extraordinarily widespread," White House Coronavirus Task Force member Deborah Birx, M.D. said last week. "It’s into the rural as equally as the urban areas."

When hospitals outside of Texas' largest cities become overwhelmed, or cannot provide an advanced level of care, the most critically ill patients may need to be flown out of town.

"Any COVID patients that we’re transporting, the reason they’re being flown by us to the Houston area, is because they’re requiring a higher level of care," AirLife paramedic Luis Herrera said.

The paramedic says the COVID-19 patients he transports on the "flying ICUs" are those moving between Houston-area hospitals. He says some are better able to provide advanced levels of care than others.

Herrera says the patients' conditions are "time-critical."

"We’ll get them there from eight to 15 minutes," Herrera said of the flight time which could take up to an hour for an ambulance in Houston traffic.

Whether the transports are intra-city or out-of-town, medical workers say the demand for paramedics in the air has never been greater.