FARGO — The rhythmic thump of rotary blades churning overhead is an increasingly common sound in neighborhoods around Sanford Broadway Medical Center as air ambulances are busy delivering transfer patients to the COVID-19 care unit.

Sanford AirMed calls are up 26% since Oct. 1, when COVID-19 transfer flights increased markedly, said Heather Lundeby, AirMed manager and chief flight nurse in Fargo.

“That’s been our highest volume since the pandemic started” in March, she said.

Patients known or suspected to have COVID-19 make up 24% of all ambulance flights — meaning that the rise in transports of patients with the virus accounts for the vast majority of the upswing, she said.

Medics move a patient from an air ambulance Nov. 12 at Sanford Medical Center in southwest Fargo. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor
Medics move a patient from an air ambulance Nov. 12 at Sanford Medical Center in southwest Fargo. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor

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Since March, AirMed has transported 226 COVID-19 patients, not all of them to Fargo, which is North Dakota’s largest treatment center for the virus. Sanford Broadway Medical Center has beds for 200 COVID-19 patients and routinely cares for 100 or more at a time.

Patients come from across North Dakota and northern Minnesota, with a few from northeast South Dakota. Other air ambulance services, including North Memorial Hospital, AirLink III and AirGuard also deliver patients infected by the coronavirus to Fargo.

“I think the staff are exhausted, not only the hospital staff, but also our transport staff,” said Tim Meyer, Sanford’s senior director of emergency services.

AirMed in Fargo has a small staff of 10 flight nurses, 10 flight paramedics, four helicopter pilots and nine airplane pilots who maintain around-the-clock coverage.

“When we have a person out, somebody else has to pick up for them,” Meyer said.

A Sanford AirMed helicopter sits parked in downtown Fargo on the pad at Sanford Broadway Medical Center, which has beds for 200 COVID-19 patients. David Samson / The Forum
A Sanford AirMed helicopter sits parked in downtown Fargo on the pad at Sanford Broadway Medical Center, which has beds for 200 COVID-19 patients. David Samson / The Forum

Staff were seldom out sick with a coronavirus infection, but that has become more common now because of rampant community spread, Lundeby said.

Flight crews take the same precautions as hospital workers, including the use of personal protective equipment such as N95 respirator masks and face shields, she said.

After each transport of a COVID-19 patient, cleanup crews run an air filter inside the aircraft and wipe surfaces with disinfectant. “It can take up to 30 to 45 minutes, depending on which procedures were performed during the transport,” she said.

“This is a new experience for everybody,” Lundeby added.

Helicopter ambulances have a range of about 150 miles; transports involving longer distances are done by airplanes, which also can fly in more adverse weather conditions, Meyer said.

Since the pandemic began, F-M Ambulance, which also is owned by Sanford, has made about 2,500 runs with patients who have or were suspected to have COVID-19, he said.

Over the past year, ambulance runs have increased between 3% to 4%, which Meyer said is “pretty normal.” During October, however, the volume increased by 16%. Since the start of the pandemic, COVID-19-related ambulance calls have accounted for about 7% to 8% of the increase, he said.

“It has picked up in the fall,” Meyer said, corresponding to the significant rise in coronavirus infection cases this fall. “We’ve had COVID calls throughout the pandemic.”

Typically, F-M Ambulance handles 16 transfers per day to and from hospitals. Recently, the service has handled 22 per day, an increase Meyer attributes to COVID-19 transfers.