Texas medics volunteer to serve in virus hotspot

The strike team's original 10-day deployment has been extended twice as the virus continues to rage in South Texas


Savannah Mehrtens
Houston Chronicle

HARLINGEN, Texas — Atascocita Fire Department paramedics Adelynn LaRoche, Sal Malinowski and Jessica Stevens have made voluntary deployments in South Texas — an area identified as a coronavirus hot spot — since June 30.

The trio was deployed to Harlingen, Texas in Cameron County to assist with an overwhelming number of COVID-19 cases.

A trio of Atascocita Fire Department paramedics have made voluntary deployments to South Texas to help tackle calls in a COVID-19 hotspot. (Photo/Atascocita Fire Department Facebook)
A trio of Atascocita Fire Department paramedics have made voluntary deployments to South Texas to help tackle calls in a COVID-19 hotspot. (Photo/Atascocita Fire Department Facebook)

“I am in EMS to help people when and where they need it — for now, that has brought me to Cameron County,” said Stevens, who returned to the Houston area on July 22.

Sitting at the tip end of Texas near the U.S.-Mexico border, Cameron County has reached 7,827 positive cases of COVID-19 and 177 deaths as of noon on July 27, according to the Cameron County Public Health website.

Neighboring Hidalgo County has 15,153 cases and 456 deaths, according to the Hidalgo County website. Only weeks earlier, members from the U.S. Congress in the Rio Grande Valley and the two U.S. senators called on the federal government to set up an emergency field hospital as cases continued to rise, according to earlier reporting.

From their perspective as emergency responders, it seems like the coronavirus is everywhere, Stevens said.

The nursing staff seems overwhelmed, near the point of burnout, and is trying their best to work around the clock while in need of help and space for sick patients, the EMS workers said.

Their mission deployment requires them to execute 9-1-1 calls in the city of Harlingen and the surrounding area, supplementing the EMS system of Cameron County, which Stevens said indicated that other first responders might be getting sick.

The heat in the valley is “eye-opening” when in full personal protective equipment, so they are working to stay hydrated. At first, the they were working 12-hour shifts, which changed with a new strike team leader. Additionally, the situation is stressful because the workers are dealing with extended exposure times because patients are sometimes waiting hours for a bed to become available, they said.

However, they said the local EMS has been grateful for the help and have welcomed them with open arms.

Stevens, who is 23-years-old, has been in the EMS field for five years and has been paramedic for three years. She joined Atascocita Fire Department in November 2019.

“(They called us in because) other first responders were likely getting sick, call volume was probably increasing and there weren't enough resources for the community,” Stevens said.

Stevens and LaRoche left for a 10-day deployment on June 30, which was extended to July 19 and extended again to July 29. Stevens was replaced by Atascocita Fire Department medic Sal Malinowski after promising her fiancé she would leave if they continued to extend their deployment.

“The response to COVID-19 here in the Harlingen area is different than that which I had seen in Atascocita because of the resources available,” Stevens said. “Even on an individual call basis, we have more treatment options available to us than the local crews because of the medications that we carry that they do not. On a larger scale, in (the) Houston area we have more hospitals available with higher capacity, and more experience with high volume.”

One problem they have seen is in-home care: if a person gets sick, the family tries to help and ends up getting sick themselves. The EMS providers said people who have to work to make ends meet in Harlingen are still going into work and running errands even if they are sick. While the median household income in Houston is $51,140, Harlingen is only $38,800, according to the US census.

“Here (in South Texas) we have smaller hospitals, less capacity, and still so many sick people,” Stevens said. “This has a profound impact on care as a whole. We have seen patients remain in the ambulance for hours before ever entering the hospital.”

Those who call for their services have sometimes already been struggling with the coronavirus for a while on their own and often need more than an ambulance alone can offer.

“These people call 9-1-1 when they have already been sick and struggling for a while,” Stevens said. “While in the ambulance these patients are receiving care from the EMS crew, but they need more than what an ambulance can offer. That is why they are going to the hospital. In addition to the patient waiting for a higher level of care, the next person calling for help may be waiting to receive any care because the ambulance that should have been returned to service hours ago is still tied up at the hospital with a patient. The community as a whole is struggling.”

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©2020 the Houston Chronicle

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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