Nearly everyone has been impacted by the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), but emergency medical services (EMS) across the nation and in Calhoun County have been on the frontlines and face-to-face with the pandemic.
COVID-19 has been a never-ending cycle of learning new knowledge, especially at the early stages, as experts and health officials grow in their understanding of the virus.
CCEMS Director Dustin Jenkins said his department was going through the same thing, and it took EMS across the country a while to figure out the most appropriate response.
“At first, it was a balancing act between keeping our guys protected and not wasting personal protective equipment (PPE). Now we take precautions on every call, with a simple mask on everyone involved, which drastically reduces the chance of infection,” Jenkins said.
When a patient calls 9-1-1 and needs medical assistance, EMS is the first to respond. In responding to a call, in particular a COVID-19 related call, paramedics will wear the appropriate PPE to hopefully ensure the safety of not only the medics and their families, but also the patient.
There is a worldwide shortage of PPE, and Jenkins said one of the toughest things at the beginning of the pandemic was when to have paramedics wear PPE due to the possibility of there being a shortage.
“If we had an unlimited supply of PPE, we would have, from the beginning, made everyone wear full COVID-19 PPE precautions on every single call, from the start. But at the beginning of this, we as the EMS industry, we’re afraid we would run out of PPE, then we really would have been in trouble,” Jenkins said. So, it was that balancing act of not knowing when or if we should wear PPE on non-COVID-19 calls, that was the tough part.”
Jenkins stated that since there is a better understanding of the different exposure risks, PPE supplies, and the different levels of protection and exposure risks involved, EMS is well protected on every call, COVID-19 related or not.
CCEMS medics have come in direct contact with COVID-19 patients, and if the appropriate PPE is worn, Jenkins said it is relatively safe. The problem lies when patients test positive later, not knowing they had COVID-19 or any symptoms, or the biggest one, according to Jenkins, is when patients do not own up to having symptoms, which leave the medics exposed.
Therefore, since some medics have been exposed, they have been quarantined or put in isolation for a period of time.
Medics self-isolate at home when possible. Other arrangements have been prepared for those who are not able to self-isolate due to a lack of accommodations or others in the high-risk categories being in their own homes.
One CCEMS medic wished to remain anonymous but had to be quarantined for 14 days due to being exposed. The medic has a family and a small child, and being away from them was tough, but they made the best out of a not so good situation, they explained.
“Though being away for that long did give me time for self-reflection. I grew more appreciative of the things that I have been blessed with in my life,” the medic said.
In another instance, CCEMS paramedic Denver Eichler responded to a call with three other crew members that dealt with a patient who had COVID-19 symptoms.
“The symptoms are the same as several other disease processes, and as a precaution, we were all placed on administrative leave and had to self-isolate,” Eichler said.
Eichler owns an RV, so he had a place to self-isolate, but he said that it did not make it any easier being away from his wife and grandson.
“I was able to isolate myself without much trouble. It was difficult for my family to not have me at the dinner table, but at least they knew I was close by,” he said.
At his home, he lives with his wife, grandson, and mother-in-law. Both his wife and mother-in-law are immune-compromised.
“My wife has four of the major risk factors for a bad outcome if she were to become infected,” Eichler said.
Since he lives at home with people who are at the highest risk, Eichler takes extra precautions when coming home from work.
“When I come home after a shift, if I haven’t done so before leaving work, my uniform goes in the washer, boots and other equipment are disinfected, and I get in the shower immediately. Again, using my PPE and good hygiene while at work and at home is the way to keep from spreading the virus,” Eichler explained.
With medics being quarantined, Jenkins said that alone brought up other issues his department had to face.
“Despite multiple instances of quarantine, we have not had anyone come down with symptoms. It could very quickly cause a huge shortage of personnel. At one point, we had five people in isolation, and two that were not able to work because they were in the high-risk category,” Jenkins said.
Due to multiple medics being quarantined or self-isolating, some members of EMS have had to work extended shifts.
Supervisor Jason Warmuth, at one point, was willing to work 11 24-hour days to help make up for the crew members who were sidelined due to being quarantined.
“Many of us have been away from home and working for an extended period of time to make sure the county has adequate EMS coverage because of coworkers either being out on quarantine due to exposure or being in a high-risk category,” Warmuth said.
Warmuth gave praise to CCEMS administration and crew members through such an unprecedented time.
“Calhoun County EMS has done an exceptional job in response to this pandemic as a whole. Starting with administration, who has done a great job keeping up with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, developing procedures and response guidelines to keep us safe and healthy and ensuring we have an adequate amount of personal protective equipment necessary as well as regular medical supplies all while working remotely from the EMS station. I also feel EMS crews have been doing very good in their response to calls and using personal protective equipment as needed and decontamination upon returning back to the station,” Warmuth stated.
Jenkins said the amount of courageousness his department has shown has been unmatched. To take on a deadly disease face-to-face has been the ultimate act of valor.
“I am very proud of each and every one of our medics. They faced the unknown with ultimate bravery going into homes that may or may not get them infected,” Jenkins said.