CONTRA COSTA CO., Calif. (KRON) – Contra Costa County health officials are urging residents to call 9-1-1 for emergencies only.

The Public Health Department said the rapid rise in respiratory illnesses is leading to excess emergency calls for non-emergencies tying up an already stressed health system. Patients who arrive at a hospital in an ambulance are not automatically prioritized over those who walk through the front door.

“If you have non-critical, a non-critical situation, you’re going to be waiting just the same as if you would be waiting if you went to the front door and walked in that way and went into the waiting room,” said Steve Hill, Contra Costa County Fire Protection District.

Meanwhile, your call to 9-1-1, as well as your ride to the hospital, may significantly slow paramedics down from responding to life-or-death situations. The Contra Costa County Fire Protection District handles most of the county’s ambulatory transports.

“We don’t want to discourage anyone from calling 9-1-1 in a medical emergency. But we’re asking them to consider whether some other alternative means of seeking treatment might be more appropriate,” said Hill. That could mean calling your primary care physician, an advice nurse, or heading to an urgent care facility.

“We’re seeing a confluence and convergence of multiple factors that are straining our resources unlike ever before,” said Dr. Senai Kidane, EMS director. He said the rise in respiratory viral cases is bogging down the health system.

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At this time last year, three to four percent of 9-1-1 calls were related to cold and flu-like symptoms. This year, they are accounting for nearly 20 percent of calls.

Dr. Kidane said 9-1-1 should be used for emergencies only. “If somebody feels that there might be having a heart attack, experiencing severe chest pains, stroke symptoms, confusion, significant weakness or dizziness that precludes their ability to get to the hospital safely on their own or with minimal assistance that they should utilize 9-1-1,” said Kidane.