'I know I'm protected': Mass. EMS has only 1 virus case despite 5.6K+ calls since March

New Bedford EMS officials say strict PPE and infection control protocols have paid off in limiting its providers' exposure to COVID-19

Curt Brown
The Standard-Times, New Bedford, Mass.

NEW BEDFORD, Mass. — When Sarah Reis signed on as an EMT with New Bedford EMS about a year ago she said the thought of a worldwide public health crisis was the furthest thing from her mind.

"This is something you hear about or see in the movies, but you never think it will play out," said the 25-year-old city woman.

New Bedford EMS officials say following strict PPE and infection control protocols has paid off. The agency has had only one provider test positive for COVID-19 after more than 5,600 calls for service since March.
New Bedford EMS officials say following strict PPE and infection control protocols has paid off. The agency has had only one provider test positive for COVID-19 after more than 5,600 calls for service since March. (Photo/New Bedford EMS Facebook)

But Reis like her 49 other full-time and part-time EMT's and paramedics with New Bedford EMS have found themselves right in the middle of the pandemic, responding to auto accidents, shootings, stabbings and transporting suspected COVID-19 patients to St. Luke's Hospital, while trying to keep themselves healthy.

It is an ironic twist of fate for a young professional who as a child hated anything to do with medicine — doctors, hospitals and emergency rooms. "My parents used to tease me that you're going to go to medical school," she said.

Through July 20, New Bedford EMS has responded to 5,658 calls for service since March 1, including about 1,200 suspected COVID-19 calls, according to information provided by Mike Thomas, deputy EMS director. The "possible COVID-19 calls" require EMT's and paramedics to transport patients from their private homes, and sometimes nursing homes, to the hospital.

Despite responding to these nearly 5,700 calls for service, it wasn't until the weekend of July 18 and 19 that a New Bedford EMS first responder tested positive for COVID-19, Thomas said. That individual is a man, who works part-time with New Bedford EMS as well as works other jobs. The individual is currently not working for New Bedford EMS.

EMS first responders say they have been to care for patients and avoid contracting the virus because of the personal protection equipment, precautions and daily informational updates provided by New Bedford EMS.

Reis said she chose her profession to make a difference and she has enjoyed interacting with people of all ages. "It's an opportunity to see everything," she said.

In the beginning of the crisis, she said she had "a fear of the unknown" working during the virus, but now she is comfortable with it. It is because New Bedford EMS has provided their frontline workers with the necessary equipment, information and taken "a proactive" approach to protecting its workers, she said.

"We feel comfortable treating COVID patients because we're so well-equipped," Reis said. "I'm not fearful, not hesitant to give them the treatment they need because I know I'm protected."

Her comfort level enables her to calm patients who may have the virus and are probably going through one of the worst days of their lives. "Calming and helping them through it makes them feel more assured," she said.

And she understands their concerns when they complain about having difficulty breathing, she said. Reis suffers from asthma. "Anything to do with breathing is scary," she said.

The planning to protect EMS workers started in March when a task force involving Dr. Matthew Bivens, director of emergency medical services for Southcoast Health, New Bedford Emergency Management Agency, Police, Fire and EMS, developed protocols for working during the pandemic, Thomas said.

The New Bedford EMS protocol is for all EMTs and paramedics to respond to all calls in full personal protective equipment — N95 masks; goggles; face shields, if needed; isolation gowns; gloves; and hoods, he said. "Everyone (every patient) is suspected as having COVID," he said.

The protective equipment is uncomfortable to wear and adds weight and makes the job of being a paramedic or an EMT "cumbersome," he said.

After returning from a call, they removed their protective equipment, dispose of it and put on new gear, he said.

Thomas attributes their success at remaining healthy to following the precautions and wearing the protective equipment. "It definitely comes down to the crews. They were definitely diligent about doing what they had to do. They handle every call in full gear assuming it was a COVID case," he said.

Mayor Jon Mitchell also commended New Bedford EMS and all first responders in the city for taking care of themselves. "It is a testament to the thoughtful planning of our emergency and public safety personnel that cases of the coronavirus among first responders have been low in New Bedford. Their careful approach in preparing for and responding to this threat, and our residents' responsibility in practicing social distancing and mask wearing, have helped lower the daily new cases to single digits in recent weeks," he said.

Dispatchers will, at times, ask an individual suspected of having the virus if they are healthy enough to walk to the door to lessen the exposure to an EMT or paramedic, he said. On most calls, EMS sends one into the home, while the other remains outside.

But they can also contract the virus when not on the job. Thomas said they advised workers to be safe and limit the people around them when they are not working.

The result has been that no one has been on sick leave during the crisis. "Everyone was coming into work. They know the citizens of New Bedford need them," he said.

EMS provide daily updates to the crews about COVID-19 as new information becomes available, he said. They are all given temperature checks before the start of each workday. Every ambulance is sprayed with defoggers or spray guns after every call and then cleaned to sanitize the vehicles.

"It was a lot of work. The credit goes to them. They dedicated themselves. They worked hard," Thomas said.

The breakdown of those 5,658 calls by month is as follows: March, 1,179 calls; April, 1,035 calls; May, 1,300 calls; June, 1,255 calls; and 953 calls through July 20.

Given that New Bedford EMS has had only one positive test while responding to almost 5,700 calls is nothing short of amazing, according to the people who made those calls.

"I think it is amazing. We're thrown right in the middle of it and no one has been sick," said Ivan Brody, a paramedic for about 25 years.

He said he is careful in his professional life. "I wear a mask. I stay out of busy places. I'm in and out," he said.

Shain Ramos, who has been with EMS about five years, said they take a lot of precaution, go out with full protection gear and clean-up carefully after every call.

EMT Reis said, despite loving what she does, she will be going to school in Boston in September to become a physician's assistant. She is sad to be leaving and hopes to work part-time for New Bedford EMS.

She hopes to obtain her master's degree after two years of school and return to practice medicine on SouthCoast. "Emergency medicine has my heart at the moment," she said.


©2020 The Standard-Times, New Bedford, Mass.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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