The earliest way of summoning emergency services was by ringing a bell, either mounted atop the station or in the belfry of a local church. Now we expect the wail of an approaching ambulance siren whenever there is a medical emergency. For some the noise is startling, and for others it is the sound of safety – a reminder that there are professionals protecting the community. During this time of COVID-19 pandemic, one wonders how EMS services are protecting themselves? Preston, Chatfield and Spring Valley Ambulance Services shared what changes they’ve made to protect EMS personnel and their patients.
What are some of the changes EMS are being asked to make when ambulance services are called out? It starts at the 911 call where the COVID-19 screening process will begin. Dispatchers at Fillmore County will ask questions about symptoms, including flu-like symptoms, fever, whether the patient has traveled recently or had contact with people who’ve tested positive for COVID-19. When EMS arrives at the patient’s location a single team member will first evaluate and assess the individual instead of the whole team rushing in. Each crewmember will be wearing personal protective equipment (PPE), as in mask and gloves, and after EMS asks additional screening questions it could result in the crews wearing additional PPE for patient contact. Ryan Throckmorton from Preston Ambulance states, “We will also be providing a mask to the patient, this will be required to be worn by the patient during the duration of treatment or transport.”
How has the transportation and delivery of a patient at the hospital changed? One important change to note is that at this time friends and family of the patient are not allowed to be in the ambulance or at the hospital, with the exception of minor children being allowed one parent at the hospital. Although difficult to be separated from family at the hospital, the contagious nature of COVID-19 means taking an approach that protects as many people as possible by lessening the chances of sharing it.
During transport Chatfield Ambulance will be keeping the power vent on and closing the door between the patient compartment and the cab. Respiratory procedures increase the likelihood of exposure and as a result ambulance services are limiting airway interventions while in the ambulance. EMS personnel are still able to provide other measures to relieve respiratory distress. Once a patient arrives at the hospital, transfer from the ambulance to hospital personnel will include a repeat of the screening questions and staff will be wearing appropriate PPE.
Are emergency services experiencing a shortage of medical supplies? Throckmorton from Preston Ambulance says, “As far as supplies go we have not experienced a shortage at this time. We were fortunate to be prepared with the appropriate PPEs and additional items we’ve been able to order from our regular suppliers. We have also been able to obtain supplies through the healthcare coalition and through the strategic stock supply through the state.” Rocky Burnett from Chatfield Ambulance explained, “We have a small stock of PPE at this time and have backorders with a couple of vendors for more. Our vendors have said the backorder could be three weeks.”
What if a person is experiencing symptoms of COVID-19? Burnett from Chatfield Ambulance clarified – “I would encourage people who believe that they are showing symptoms to call the COVID-19 hotline to seek guidance from hospital staff, as they may be asked to shelter at home instead of calling for an ambulance.” As found on health.state.mn.us, hotlines to call with COVID-19 health questions are (651) 201-3920 or (800) 657-3903, from 7 a.m. to 7p.m.
Although there are changes to how EMS proceeds with a call, their commitment to patient care is nothing short of heroic. Ryan Throckmorton says it clearly: “We are very fortunate to have local EMS teams that are dedicated to helping others and making a difference in our communities. We cannot be afraid of COVID-19; we have to be informed. We are very fortunate being centrally located in the U.S.; [it] allows time for research and understanding before it impacts us locally. Research from China has shown there were zero patient to healthcare worker transmissions using the exact PPE we have in our ambulances. We have an obligation to first and foremost protect our team and our residents; the procedures we have put in place will allow us to meet that obligation.” The next time you hear a siren go by, pause to appreciate the heroes on the front lines who are risking their lives to save yours.