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EMS is the first line of defense against spread of infectious diseases

EMTs and paramedics must protect themselves with PPE, investigate symptoms and report findings to the hospital to identify potential infectious disease outbreaks


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By Keith Collins, alumni, Fire Science Management at American Military University

Emergency services personnel play a vital role in maintaining public health. Not only are they the first to provide medical care during an emergency, they are also the first line of defense in identifying and helping prevent the spread of infectious diseases.

During epidemics or pandemics such as recent breakouts of Zika virus, Ebola and measles, first responders must provide first-line evaluation of patients who may be potentially carrying highly infectious diseases and accurately report information to medical facilities. There are several ways first responders can help fight the spread of contagious diseases.

EMS personnel are the first line of defense in identifying and helping prevent the spread of infectious diseases. (Photo/National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases)
EMS personnel are the first line of defense in identifying and helping prevent the spread of infectious diseases. (Photo/National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases)

Protect yourself first: PPE for EMS

Stopping the spread of disease starts with protecting yourself from infection. First responders may encounter countless diseases including influenza, MRSA, VRSA, TB, C-Diff, HIV and more.

When responding to any medical situation, EMTs and paramedics must ensure they are properly protected. They must always wear personal protective equipment when treating all patients. In many cases, wearing patient-care gloves, safety glasses and an N-95 FFP-type mask can help prevent infection. For better or worse, first responders are strongly dependent on dispatchers providing as much information as possible so EMTs can enter the scene as prepared as possible.   

Ask investigative questions about infectious disease symptoms

It can often be difficult to immediately know what a patient is suffering from because many diseases, such as Zika and influenza, present common symptoms including fever, headache, and joint and muscle pain. It’s important first responders do not instantly write these symptoms off as minor everyday ailments.

When responding to a patient with an undiagnosed medical condition, first responders should thoroughly question the patient and/or their family members. In a sense, first responders must act like investigators to determine the severity of each case. Questions and observations may include:

  • What are the symptoms?
  • When did the symptoms first present?
  • Have the symptoms changed?
  • Did anything change in the patient’s environment or surroundings?
  • What were the events that led to their illness?
  • Is anyone else in the household ill or presenting similar symptoms?
  • Has the patient been out of the country or been around someone who’s been out of the country? If so, where did that person travel to? How long were they there? How long from when they returned did the symptoms start?

Asking questions about international travel is especially important to determine if the patient may have been exposed to diseases that are not common to the area. If a patient confirms they have been out of the country or exposed to someone who has been out of the country, it is critical to let the hospital know immediately so they can prepare a quarantined area to treat the patient.

Share symptoms, potential infections with hospital staff

Once information is collected, it needs to then be passed along to the receiving hospital. One of the most important responsibilities of emergency medical professionals is accurate and timely disease reporting. If the patient (or family of the patient) indicates that a person may have a communicable disease, it is an emergency responder’s obligation to inform healthcare professionals. Without good investigative work and strong reporting, little would be known about what diseases are being brought into emergency care facilities.

Monitor infectious disease epidemiology reports

Medical professionals must be aware of infectious diseases in their area so they can be on the lookout for patients who present the symptoms and ensure responders are better protected for response. Continuously monitoring local, state and national epidemiology reports from public health offices to gain a better sense of what is occurring in their response jurisdiction should become common practice.  Local reports are likely available from your closest hospital or county Public Health office. National information and reports are available through the CDC. You can also look for your state (or territory) Public Health Office on this map from the CDC. 

Emergency medical professionals are instrumental in stopping the spread of highly communicable diseases. By protecting themselves and asking thorough questions, EMS professionals can help identify and stop diseases from spreading through their communities.

About the Author
Keith Collins graduated in 2014 with a bachelor’s of science in Fire Science Management from American Military University. In 2017, he earned a Master’s Degree in Public Health from Grand Canyon University. Keith has more than 14 years in the fire service, including military service, and is currently working as a firefighter in Fort Huachuca, Az. Follow Keith on Twitter @keithgcollins. To reach him, email IPSauthor@apus.edu. For more articles featuring insight from industry experts, subscribe to In Public Safety’s bi-monthly newsletter.

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