COVID surge taxing Ga. fire-rescue department
Glynn County Fire Chief R.K. Jordan said the call volume is about 23 percent above normal so far in August, a month that has seen a rise locally, statewide and nationally in COVID-19 cases
The Brunswick News, Ga.
GLYNN COUNTY, Ga. — Predictably, the number of COVID-19 medical calls fielded by the Glynn County Fire-Rescue Department is spiking in direct proportion to the deficit in frontline personnel available to respond.
Glynn County Fire Chief R.K. Jordan said the call volume is about 23 percent above normal so far in August, a month that has seen a rise locally, statewide and nationally in COVID-19 cases. Conversely, the department has had 23 firefighters, EMTs or paramedics test positive for COVID-19 since July 31, Jordan said.
Presently, 15 people who would normally be serving at one of the county's nine stations is out with the virus, he said. And the calls from residents with COVID-19 or symptoms of the virus just keep coming.
"The vast majority of the increase in call volume right now is COVID," Jordan told The News. "If it is not COVID, it is people who feel they have COVID. Of course, a large percentage of them have ultimately been positive."
While the department will respond to all medical calls, he urged those whose COVID-19 symptoms do not include "respiratory distress" to contact a primary care physician or an urgent care center.
"It's the sick person calls right now that are really beating us into the ground," he said. "Unless you're having respiratory distress, it's taxing us right now."
On the whole, calls related to COVID-19 are up even over this time last year, when the county was experiencing a peak in cases. Driving the recent increase is the virus's delta variant, a strand of COVID-19 that is spreads quicker and transmits more efficiently, Jordan said. Some 23 percent of all people tested for COVID-19 locally are testing positive, which is significantly up over this time last year, he said.
"Oh, it absolutely does," Jordan said when asked if the delta variant is playing a role in the recent uptick.
In response, members of the county fire-rescue department's administrative staff are going back to station shifts, he said. Firefighters, EMTs and paramedics are being called in on off days. Some are entering a mandatory overtime rotation, he said. (Less than 20 firefighters with grandfather status have no medical training; there are 40 firefighter-paramedics and the remainder all have advanced EMT certification or basic EMT training.)
"We had 14 on overtime last Friday," Jordan said. "I had two people resign recently because of mandatory overtime holds."
In a 24-hour shift, some ambulance crews rarely see their assigned fire-rescue stations, he said. Battalion chiefs and folks assigned to light duty have been called in to help transfer COVID-19 patients from the ambulance to admittance at Southeast Georgia Health System's Brunswick hospital emergency room, he said.
"We've had ambulance crews start out at 7:45 in the morning, and they won't see their station until midnight," he said. "And that's not to sleep. They might get called right back out."
The department has 13 employees not able to fill a frontline gap, either because of military duty, light duty, worker's comp injuries or because they are new and uncertified hires. These are typical absences that do not affect the staffing contingent of about 130 frontline workers, Jordan said. But when 14 more frontline workers are lost to COVID-19 infection, the toll adds up, he said.
And the calls keep coming. Presently, only two EMTs or paramedics will enter a residence where a call with COVID-19 symptoms originated. Those two are "gowned up," in masks, goggles and disposable Tyvek suits.
"Many days, in fact most days, we're having to stack calls by priority," Jordan said. "We've run out of ambulances."
In southern Glynn County, neighboring Camden County fire-rescue workers are providing backup when needed, he said.
The public could help, he said. Jordan urges those who experience COVID-19 symptoms that do not include "respiratory distress" to first contact their primary care doctor or an emergency care center. Of course, he added, anyone experiencing chest pains should not hesitate to call 911.
"It they have symptoms that don't include respiratory distress, it would be better to contact their personal physician. And many patients could be treated in urgent care. And chest pain is always going to be a high priority."
Many of the department's frontline workers who contracted COVID-19 were vaccinated, Jordan said. Still, Jordan notes vaccinated workers with COVID-19 are experiencing illness in line with medical experts' assertions that the virus's effects are generally not as intense on the vaccinated.
"I would absolutely encourage those who are not vaccinated to get the vaccine," Jordan said. "I personally was leery of the vaccine at first. But I'm so glad I got vaccinated. I highly encourage it."
(c)2021 The Brunswick News (Brunswick, Ga.)