In ambulances, an unseen, unwelcome passenger: COVID-19


It’s crowded behind the ambulance.

Two emergency medical technicians, the affected person, the gurney — and an unseen and unwelcome passenger lurking within the air.

For EMTs Thomas Hoang and Joshua Hammond, the coronavirus is continually shut. COVID-19 has turn into their greatest concern throughout 24-hour shifts in California’s Orange County, driving with them from 911 name to 911 name, from affected person to affected person.

They and different EMTs, paramedics and 911 dispatchers in Southern California have been thrust into the entrance strains of the nationwide epicenter of the pandemic. They are scrambling to assist these in want as hospitals burst with a surge of sufferers after the vacations, ambulances are caught ready outdoors hospitals for hours till beds turn into out there, oxygen tanks are in alarmingly quick provide and the vaccine rollout has been sluggish.

EMTs and paramedics have all the time handled life and loss of life — they make split-second choices about affected person care, which hospital to race to, the perfect and quickest approach to save somebody — and now they’re only a breath away from turning into the affected person themselves.

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Emergency medical technician Joshua Hammond, 25, of Emergency Ambulance Service, drives an ambulance to his station in Placentia, Calif. Friday, Jan. 8, 2021. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

They robe up, masks up and glove up, “however you may solely be so secure,” Hammond stated. “We don’t have the posh of being 6 ft aside from the affected person.”

Statistics on COVID-19 instances and deaths amongst EMTs and paramedics — particularly ones employed by non-public firms — are arduous to search out. They are thought of important well being care staff however not often obtain the pay and protections given to medical doctors and nurses.

Hammond and Hoang work for Emergency Ambulance Service Inc., a personal ambulance firm in Southern California. They, like so many others, have lengthy fostered targets of turning into first responders to serve their communities.

Hoang is attending nursing faculty. Hammond is one check away from turning into a paramedic. Both had been known as to a life within the medical discipline after traumatic experiences: Hammond needed to name 911 after his mom had an allergic response, and Hoang witnessed a younger bicyclist get hit by a automotive.

Yet as COVID-19 infections surge and the dangers enhance, they marvel: Is it value risking your life — and the lives of your family members at residence — for a small paycheck and a dream?

“It’s actually arduous to justify it past ‘I actually need to assist individuals,’” stated Hammond, 25. “Is that well worth the danger?”

For now, sure.

“I do need to do my half in serving to individuals get higher, in a way,” stated Hoang, 29.

And so their day begins at 7 a.m.

Wearing masks, Hoang and Hammond clear their ambulance and gear, wiping down each floor even when the earlier crew scrubbed it already. They take no possibilities throughout their daylong shift protecting the Orange County metropolis of Placentia.

The 911 calls are available in with restricted data: a damaged bone, chest ache, issue respiration, stomachache, fever. Every affected person is a possible service of the coronavirus, whether or not they understand it or not.

Sometimes, individuals know they’re contaminated and inform 911 dispatchers earlier than the EMTs arrive. Other instances, the signs themselves — fever, shortness of breath — sign a doable case. But Hammond remembers one lady, affected by hip ache, who did not inform him or his associate about her coronavirus prognosis.

He solely discovered afterward, saying it bolstered the significance of treating each affected person as if they’ve examined optimistic.

“That was positively a name the place we realized lots,” Hammond stated.

Unlike medical doctors and nurses, first responders should go inside properties. They stroll into scorching zones the place everybody in a family is sick, the place the virus is within the air. They elevate motionless sufferers onto gurneys, their masked faces simply inches aside.

They race to hospitals already overwhelmed with sick individuals, generally solely to attend hours outdoors earlier than their affected person may be admitted. And then they do all of it once more when the subsequent 911 name is available in.

“We don’t know the top end result,” Hoang stated. “We solely know the start to the hospital.”

Then there are those that direct the EMTs the place to go. In Los Angeles County, 20 miles (32 kilometers) northwest from Hoang and Hammond, three younger ladies stood earlier than six screens apiece not too long ago, speaking into headsets with clear, clipped voices, marshaling different ambulance crews round a territory stretching from the mountains to the ocean.

Ashley Cortez, Adreanna Moreno and Jaime Hopper work 12-hour shifts as dispatchers for Care Ambulance Service Inc. If the EMTs are the entrance strains, these ladies are the scouts.

They play chess with ambulances all day. When one will get caught at a hospital for eight, 10 or 12 hours, the dispatchers should reposition the others to cowl its space. When an EMT reviews a optimistic COVID-19 check, the dispatchers should discover a approach to cowl the ambulance’s calls if the entire crew should quarantine. When one family has a number of coronavirus sufferers requiring two ambulances, the dispatchers must plug the outlet.

Their biggest concern is what’s known as a “stage zero” — when there aren’t any ambulances left to ship to an emergency. In Los Angeles County, one of many nation’s hardest-hit counties in the course of the pandemic, the concern turns into a daily actuality.

For Moreno, 28, the nervousness begins the night time earlier than her shift.

“I lay there and know I’m going to come back in, and I do know I’m going to don’t have any items to run these calls,” she stated.

On Christmas weekend, Cortez watched as name after name piled up on her display — with no ambulances out there. Typically, it takes 30 seconds to ship one out. That weekend, it took as much as quarter-hour. And this was even earlier than ambulances began languishing outdoors hospitals for hours.

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“I used to be simply in disbelief,” stated Cortez, 26.

There’s not far more the dispatchers can do. They watch these screens. They take heed to radio chatter. They rearrange the crews to cowl probably the most territory doable. And they marvel what contemporary horror awaits in a virus-ravaged world the place the risks are too many and the ambulances are too few.

“What if one thing occurs to my daughter,” Cortez stated, “and there was no person to ship for her?”



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