On the Front Lines: The Role of EMTs and Paramedics During a Pandemic
“Fear is a reaction. Courage is a decision.”
— Sir Winston Churchill
Around the world, COVID-19 has overwhelmed healthcare resources like never before. In response, the roles of EMTs and paramedics have been dramatically expanded to meet the critical needs of public safety.
What was already a challenging and fast-paced job, has become even more rigorous and risky. Despite the enormous hardship and extreme danger, however, EMS professionals selflessly perform their life-saving services with courage and compassion.
This article looks at the changing roles of EMTs and paramedics during the COVID-19 outbreak and spotlights some of the frontline heroes who were featured in news stories across the nation.
The job has changed, but the mission is the same
In the war against COVID-19, the role of all EMTs and paramedics across America has drastically changed. Our EMS professionals are trained to respond to all types of tragedies, natural disasters, car accidents, building fires, terrorist attacks, and even disease epidemics.
But the Coronavirus pandemic is unlike anything that’s come before. With no vaccine, no cure, and an incomplete understanding of how it works, COVID-19 presents a unique danger and unprecedented challenge.
Across the country, EMTs and paramedics are quick to point out that COVID-19 is unlike anything they’ve experienced before. But even though they’re justifiably frightened by this deadly disease, they are dedicated to serving and protecting their communities.
“In 26 years, I’ve never seen anything like this—and I was at 9/11,” said Sande Mazzariello of Mount Vernon, NY. “The chaos was there, but that was all in one day. This is every day. It’s scary to get up in the morning to go to work. I’ve never really been afraid of my job.”
Matthew Sutphin, a battalion chief in Clayton, NC said first responders can’t help but think about the risk they’re taking. But they still do the best job possible. “They’re out the same as they would be and just want to help people,” he said.
EMT Brock Robinson of Denver, CO said he and his team are right where they want to be. “This is what I signed up for, I completely understand the risks. We may be in masks and goggles, gloves, looking like there’s something big going on, but we’re going to give you the top care, everything we got,” he said.
“We have high standards at Johnston County EMS,” said Ted Hardy, a paramedic and battalion chief in Johnston County, NC. “Our mission to provide excellent care and quality service never changes regardless of the situation. Our staff is doing an amazing job stepping up to the plate to maintain our high level of care despite the pandemic we’re facing. COVID-19 has certainly created some challenges to our work environment, but we are meeting them head-on.”
“It’s both completely the same and completely different,” explained Dave Cohen, a paramedic in Colchester, Essex and Charlotte, VT. “The job really is still the job that it always was — getting out into the field and into people’s homes and taking care of them in that moment of crisis when they just need somebody. We do it with more clothing than we used to, though we’ve always had that level of protection and needed it occasionally. But every call now going in with full PPE and the full stress of trying to evaluate: How am I gonna handle it and keeping myself safe? But more importantly, keeping my partner safe and keeping my crew safe and keeping my service safe? And then, hopefully, without bringing anything home to my family and to my wife and to my children. It’s it’s just more.”
The EMS role expands to answer the need
In response to COVID-19, EMS protocols and policies are continually being updated, there is increasing urgency for EMTs and paramedics to review training on respiratory infection transmission, patient assessment, first responder personnel protective equipment, and patient transport.
In many parts of the country, EMS professionals take on expanded roles including triage, diagnosis, on-scene treatment, communication, evacuation, coordination of patient transport, and patient tracking.
In some areas, EMS personnel may also take leadership roles during disaster response and be a part of command staff or be an integral part of regional or national assets.
The “new normal” for EMS will be the utilization of specially trained, expanded-role personnel — community paramedics — to keep people safe at home, said Matt Zavadsky, Chief Strategic Integration Officer for MedStar Mobile Healthcare in Fort Worth TX and President of NAEMT. That’s been the goals of many of these community paramedic programs since they started, and the involvement in the COVID-19 crisis is no different. This could be a very good time to show the value of specially trained paramedics in the community, managing patients to help keep them out of the hospital.”
Extra precautions are taken to protect everyone
To protect themselves and their patients, EMS professionals are taking more extreme safety measures. Like the rest of us, EMTs and paramedics are practicing social distancing, washing their hands often, and covering their coughs. They’re also going much further, by wearing additional personal protection equipment (PPE), regularly cleaning their trucks and equipment, and taking greater precautions.
To improve early treatment and safeguard first responders, dispatchers now ask questions related to Coronavirus. Have you travelled? Do you have a fever? Do you have a cough? Have you been in contact with anyone who is quarantined? Then in an abundance of caution, EMTs and paramedics will ask the same questions again when they arrive on the scene. This is both to confirm what they know and to possibly discover a different truth than what was told to the dispatcher.
Where they used to send a crew into a home, now they may send just one person. That person can assess the medical emergency and call for additional help, if needed. They also make a point of staying on top of the latest information from CDC, WHO, FEMA and other health authorities.
“We show up an hour early before shift, wipe down the entire ambulance, wipe any place touched,” said Lt. Tom Ferguson, a paramedic in Denver. “Safety is the number one concern when we step in the ambulances.”
“Every day, we’re learning new things about COVID-19,” explained battalion chief Matthew Sutphin. “So we’re having to take the necessary steps to keep our guys safe and our community safe. We’ve been going above and beyond just N95 masks and gloves and stuff. Currently, if it’s a COVID-19 confirmed case, we’re using full (self-contained breathing apparatus), or air packs, and we’re only sending in one person at a time. Our trucks are being cleaned after every call. We’re taking more and more showers after any kind of call where there could be some kind of exposure or something we’re not sure about.”
Another component of the job that EMS professionals emphasize during the COVID-19 crisis is the importance of teamwork. The best defense against COVID-19 is being a team player, said paramedic Ted Hardy. “For all of this to come together, we need teamwork from everyone involved in our system. We have an excellent team that is meeting that challenge.”
“It’s one big family around here,” said battalion chief Matthew Sutphin. “We all work together as a team. They all know we got each other’s back.”
The care and compassion remain constant
Throughout all the changes, the one aspect that has remained constant is the care and compassion of these dedicated EMS professionals. When asked what the job is all about, paramedic Lisa Moden of Parker, AZ had this to say. “It’s always helping people and supporting the community that I live in. We run towards danger, not away.”
Donny Izzo, a paramedic in Westchester County, NY had a similar sentiment. “It’s so crazy out there. It’s really daunting to come to work because we know we’re going to have to face this. It’s not an easy job right now. But we can’t run away from it—we have to run towards it.”
Alanna Badgley, a paramedic in Yonkers, NY said this about his patients: “I’m there to talk to them, and provide some level of empathy and humanity in the moment in which they are truly terrified.”
“Even on a normal call, I always tell people, if I look ok and I don’t look worried, you shouldn’t be worried, said Jason Burdeaux, an EMS paramedic in Port Huron, MI. “You need that voice of calm, that’s what you need in this job.”
“We have not yet seen the surge,” explained Mark Philippy, chairman of EMS Council in Rochester, NY. “I think we are prepared and recognize that the surge is coming, but right now it’s definitely the calm before the storm. Where everybody’s a little bit on edge waiting for when that next shoe’s going to drop.” Phillipy wants the public to know they are in good hands. “We are here for them and we will continue to respond to their emergency,” he said. “When the surge comes, people are going to know that when they dial 911 it may take a little bit longer to get the ambulance there, but the ambulance will come.”
“It’s a scary, scary time. And it’s OK to be scared,” said paramedic Dave Cohen. “Know that the people doing this are there because of empathy and care and a willingness to be there to help.”
“It’s interesting times,” added paramedic Tom Ferguson. “We can’t necessarily see the light at the end of the tunnel, but we know it’s there and we’ll get through it and will be stronger for it.”
Love the quote by Sir Winston Churchill, I had forgotten it! And thank you for giving us an outline of the extra efforts being done by first responders.
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