VANCOUVER, Wash. (KOIN) — For all but the most critical patients, a trip to the hospital in an ambulance will likely mean spending time in the waiting room as medical staff toil against the tide of unvaccinated COVID-19 patients.

Shaun Ford, the chief of North Country EMS, told KOIN 6 News that when an emergency department becomes over-crowded, a hospital can divert ambulances to other hospitals. This “divert status” gives medical staff enough time to treat their existing patients and work through high volumes of patients. Ford said the process is not uncommon during peak times of the year or a hospital might divert ambulances for an hour or two each day.

But Ford said divert status has become the new normal for both hospitals in Clark County.

“It’s been 24 hours a day, mostly for the last two weeks,” he said.

PeaceHealth Southwest set up a tent last week to help with waiting room overflow for people seeking emergency treatment. PeaceHealth spokesperson Randy Querin said the hospital was struggling with discharging patients to other medical facilities, while also seeing staffing shortages as caregivers fell ill with COVID-like symptoms.

Hospitals up and down the I-5 corridor are asking people to go to the appropriate place for medical care. People with minor injuries or illnesses should visit an urgent care clinic or a primary care doctor, not a hospital.

Ford said approximately half of the calls to North Country EMS in the last week have been from people who had tested positive for COVID and worried they needed to seek emergency care when most had mild symptoms like a cough or fever.

“For most people, it’s something that they can care for themselves at home,” he said. “We’ll definitely take them to the hospital if that’s what they want, but we’ll talk about other options for them.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says you should seek emergency care if you experience difficulty breathing, persistent pain or pressure in the chest, confusion, inability to wake or stay awake, or pale, gray, or blue colored skin, lips or nail beds.

Ford said his paramedic and EMT crews have had to wait between 30 minutes to an hour to get patients into the waiting room of an ER. But he said the wait is still small compared to the four-hour wait some EMS officials have reported in King County.