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Why EMS leaders need to discuss COVID-19 with the public, media

Use your familiarity, credibility and ability to speak in plain language to inform the public about the novel coronavirus and how to avoid infection


EMS providers from Cumberland Goodwill EMS demonstrate N95 fit test and discuss coronavirus, flu preparedness with local media

Photo/Nathan Harig, Cumberland Goodwill EMS

The wall-to-wall media coverage of the COVID-19 spreading within China, and to southeast Asia and now to the United States, is impossible to avoid in the national news, as well as your hometown television, newspaper and radio. Equally inevitable is the expert pushback, from emergency physicians, to paramedics, to public health officials, to epidemiologists, that the thing we ought to worry about is seasonal influenza. The reminder about the danger of influenza is not without good cause as thousands of deaths, just this flu season, are already attributed to influenza.

But EMS leaders shouldn’t pass up this opportunity to engage with the media, the public and the communities they serve to discuss COVID-19: Here’s why.

1. EMS is the out-of-hospital care experts

From the opioid epidemic to treatment of known and unknown infectious disease, and everything in between, we are the experts in the out-of-hospital assessment of patients of every age, ailment and background. We are able to rapidly assess sick or not sick, collect a succinct patient history, identify associated signs and pertinent negative, and measure the first set of vital signs. And we are already trained to – and regularly do – assess patients while taking airborne droplet precautions, wearing personal protective equipment and minimizing exposure to hazardous environments.

Share your out-of-hospital care expertise with emergency physicians and public health officials, but don’t cede this space or defer to others who have a fraction of your experience working in austere environments.

2. Media and public want to hear from experts

Every news organization has reporters assigned to covering COVID-19. Those reporters are looking for angles to keep the story fresh for their viewers and readers, like:

  • How is the coronavirus spread?
  • What are the signs and symptoms of COVID-19?
  • When should people call 911?
  • Who is most susceptible to this coronavirus?
  • What can we do to prevent exposure to the coronavirus?

The best soundbites for newscasts and subheadings for news articles will come from experts with credibility, familiarity and the ability to answer reporter questions in easy to understand layperson terms. Your uniform, ambulance in the backdrop and daily experience explaining medicine to laypeople are invaluable to local media now and every day.

3. EMS experts have data

There is an opportunity to analyze your organization’s ePCR and CAD data. Numbers can lead a news story, assuage concerns and add local perspective. Are you able to report the:

  • Year-over-year changes to complaints of respiratory illness?
  • Number of passengers screened at your community’s international airport?
  • Surveillance data gathered by industry organizations and the CDC with a local perspective?
  • Number of participants in your flu clinics and education programs?
  • Percent of employees who received this year’s influenza vaccination?
  • Number of employees and first responder partners, like 911 telecommunicators, police officers and firefighters, who have completed a just-in time training refresher on personal protective equipment and protection from airborne droplets?

Use the data available to you to strengthen your messages of proper perspective and prevention.

4. We know the people who are most at risk

When talking to the media and the public, through your department’s social channels, it’s important to tailor your messages to make sure you are speaking to the people most at risk, as well as their caregivers. Like influenza, the most at risk for coronavirus are the really young, the really old, the immunocompromised and those already battling acute or chronic respiratory compromise.

Backstop your media interviews and social media posts with phone calls or in-person visits to the skilled nursing homes in your community. Have your community paramedics discuss with their patients the actual risks of COVID-19 and the easy steps to minimize those risks.

5. COVID-19 risk mitigation is influenza mitigation

This year’s influenza virus is likely already straining your ambulance service with increased call volume and potentially increased worker absenteeism. The succinct messages you deliver about avoiding COVID-19 are just as applicable to preventing the transmission of influenza:

  • Wash your hands frequently
  • Catch your cough in your elbow
  • Don’t go to work, school and other public places if you are sick
  • Get your influenza vaccination; it’s not too late

The CDC reminds clinicians to “use standard precautions, contact precautions, airborne precautions, and use eye protection” for a known or suspected patient. For a patient with the CDC clinical criteria of fever, lower respiratory compromise and recent travel to a location with known COVID-19 or close contact with a laboratory confirmed patient, fit your patient with a surgical mask or non-rebreather mask (only if hypoxic), give advance radio or smartphone notification to the receiving facility and isolate the patient from other patients upon arrival at the hospital. After transport, follow local protocols for ambulance and equipment cleaning, and monitoring of personnel.

Greg Friese, MS, NRP, is the Lexipol Editorial Director, leading the efforts of the editorial team on Police1, FireRescue1, Corrections1 and EMS1. Greg served as the EMS1 editor-in-chief for five years. He has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a master’s degree from the University of Idaho. He is an educator, author, national registry paramedic since 2005, and a long-distance runner. Greg was a 2010 recipient of the EMS 10 Award for innovation. He is also a three-time Jesse H. Neal award winner, the most prestigious award in specialized journalism, and the 2018 and 2020 Eddie Award winner for best Column/Blog. Connect with Greg on LinkedIn.