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On The Frontlines of Covid-19 Pandemic With Groton EMTs

by Russell Harris
A few short weeks ago, before the Coronavirus hit, life was simpler for Groton EMTs. Whenever a call came in for a hospital transport, they just jumped into their ambulance and headed out. Fast, efficient and direct.
     But, since Covid-19 hit, a simple hospital run has become a carefully orchestrated, time-consuming, dance of meticulous procedures required to keep patients and EMTs safe while also making sure that the ambulance, too, is infection-free for its next mission. These Coronavirus safety protocols often triple the time needed to complete a simple hospital transport run.
     Recently the Groton Herald sat down with EMT/Firefighter Paul McBrearty and Deputy Chief Arthur Cheeks to learn more about this new reality for Groton EMTs in the time of the Covid-19 pandemic.
     EMT/Firefighter Paul McBrearty explained that preparing to go out on an ambulance run for a suspected Covid-19 case requires donning PPE [personal protective equipment] including a Tyvek suit, a mask, double sets of gloves, and a shield. Not only does it take time to get suited up, but speedy suiting-up requires help from other Fire Department members.
     Once suited up and en route, EMTs must follow stringent health safety protocols. After arriving and securing a patient in the ambulance, the driver has to remove all PPE, wash hands with hand sanitizer, and then re-don the protective equipment before getting back into the ambulance cab, otherwise the driver could infect the cab. And that's just the second part of the call.
     The third part is arrival at the hospital. Now the driver is going to get out of the ambulance and assist moving the patient into the hospital. Before reentering the ambulance cab, the driver – again - must fully remove all PPE, wash hands with hand sanitizer and then re-don protective equipment before getting back into the ambulance cab.
     Once the ambulance has returned to the station, it is considered to be out of service because it needs to be sanitized,
as does the crew, before heading out on another run.
     First, the crew has to shower, wash all their clothes and dress in clean clothes. Meanwhile, others are working to get the ambulance ready to go back into service. EMT McBrearty explains, “All the personal protective equipment must be washed and sanitized, including the equipment and supplies in the ambulance that to the equipment, he said, “We're talking about the walls of the ambulance, the doors, the panels, the rails in the ambulance – everything. “Once the crew is showered, their clothes are washed and they have on clean clothes, they are back in service and ready to go again. Each individual call takes double, if not triple the time it used to.”
     Asked about the volume of Covid-19 calls, EMT McBrearty said, “We definitely hit a spike when we were taking quite a few possible Covid-19 patients to the hospital – dozens and dozens. One week it seemed like we were taking two at a time.” He explained that patients are not transported together in an ambulance but are either transported in Groton’s second ambulance or in a mutual aid ambulance.
     He said it was impossible to know for sure if all these patients had Covid-19 but having respiratory symptoms, they were classified as likely Covid-19 cases. He added that call volume seemed to come in waves but was now trending down.
     Asked to talk about the toughest part of the new working environment, EMT McBrearty explained, “We all signed up to do this job knowing each day could be our last. It's not a fear for ourselves; it's a fear for our family members. The last thing we want to do is bring something home that makes our house sick.” He added, “We come to work to provide a service and do a job, but bringing something home to our families, into our homes, exposing them - that's where the fear is for me. It's not so much fear for myself or what's going on here; it's fear for my family and my home.”
     Asked whether the department has adequate PPE supplies, EMT McBrearty said there had always been supplies of both masks and gowns and other equipment, but that they had been short Tyvek suits and high quality N-95 masks. “We were fortunate to receive a big delivery from the National Guard through FEMA that was able to deliver quite a few Tyvek suits and masks. That was a big help. It definitely replenished our stock. Stuff we needed drastically,” he said.
     He added that some small local businesses had made shields for the EMTs using 3-D printers. In fact, a Groton School theater director, along with other family members, used their 3-D printer to make shields for the department. He also thanked H&V for their contribution of a supply of high-quality N-45 masks.
     Asked how a patient could help the EMTs if they call for hospital transport, he said most important was to give dispatch a clear description of symptoms and the problem being experienced so the crew could arrive prepared. He added, “If you are able to meet EMTs at your door, in the entryway to your house, and even if you can walk and get into the ambulance yourself rather than needing a gurney, that would limit the exposure to the crew coming into the house.”
     Deputy Chief Cheeks added, “Obviously, the message should never be that we want you to walk to the door if you can’t. We will always come inside and assess and assist you to the stretcher from there if needed. But, if you are able and you're healthy enough, and if you're not experiencing any dizziness or any weakness or anything like that, and if you feel able, yes it is definitely better for the crew if you can walk to the ambulance.”
     Speaking of the challenge of the working during the pandemic, Deputy Chief Cheeks said, “I think I speak for all of us in the department when I say that we greatly appreciate all the support we've received from the public, including people dropping off food and people making masks and shields for us on their 3-D printers. It's great to serving a community where the department is supported and appreciated every day.”
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