Ambulances stuck waiting for beds to open at Caldwell Memorial Hospital’s emergency department are now leaving in a third of the time it was taking before the Samaritan’s Purse field hospital opened.

EMS Chief Jonathan Cook said that before the field hospital opened just over two weeks ago, ambulances were waiting at the emergency department for up to 50 minutes because there were no beds available for patients, the result of high numbers of patients with COVID-19 being admitted to the hospital.

After the field hospital opened, the wait time was cut down to 15 minutes, Cook said.

The field hospital has helped “decompress” the hospital’s emergency department, “thereby allowing the space and resources to be utilized more timely for regular ED visits and also more of the critical COVID (positive) patients,” said Rebecca Smith, vice president and chief operating officer of Caldwell UNC Health Care, which operates the hospital.

In general, the pandemic has significantly affected EMS, which is running around twice the number of calls that it did at this time last year, Cook said. Around half the patients — 20-30 each day — that EMS takes to the hospital have or are suspected to have COVID-19, Cook said.

Before the field hospital opened, some fire departments with backup ambulances were called on increasingly to help out if EMS had no ambulances available — something that used to happen only occasionally, Cook said.

Still, Cook said, even when it was busy, someone has been available to handle every call, so people did not have to wait longer than normal for help.

Reporter Kara Fohner can be reached at 828-610-8721.

Reporter Kara Fohner can be reached at 828-610-8721.