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NYC medic describes ambulance as ‘ad hoc funeral home’ in first-hand account of pandemic

Paramedic George Contreras described a family holding a makeshift wake outside his rig and says he has never seen so many deaths in his 30-year career

By Laura French

NEW YORK — A New York City paramedic has shared his story working on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic, saying he has never seen so much death throughout his 30-year career.

Paramedic George Contreras, assistant director of the Center for Disaster Medicine at New York Medical College, highlighted an incident involving a virus patient who died in his ambulance in an interview with the New York Daily News.

“At that moment, I realized because this person died in my ambulance, the next step for this family, for this patient, was going to be the city morgue,” Contreras said. “This was going to be the last time that family was going to see that person for another two weeks, if that. They were distraught.

“On this street corner in New York City, in the middle of the night, I decided to allow the family to say their final goodbyes right there in the back of the ambulance,” Contreras continued. “I never thought my ambulance would become an ad hoc funeral home and be the site for a wake in the middle of the night.”

Contreras said the patient was 70 years old and had tested positive for the virus two weeks before his death but refused to allow his family to call 911 until he could barely breathe. When he died, despite resuscitation efforts, Contreras said about 20 family members were surrounding the ambulance.

The paramedic said many families in the city live in close quarters with each other and have difficulty social distancing, and the toll of the virus has an emotional impact on EMS providers witnessing several deaths each shift.

“There’s a very human aspect to this, what they call the ‘invisible enemy.’ But it’s not very invisible when you deal with it on a regular basis,” Contreras said.

New York City has had nearly 169,000 cases of the virus, 13,319 confirmed COVID-19 deaths and 5,387 suspected COVID-19 deaths as of May 3, according to the city’s health department.