|Communication remains key for first responders during COVID-19 pandemic|
|By By Jason Vallee Sun staff writer|
|March 16, 2020|
In 1919, Westerly residents were hit hard by a Spanish flu pandemic that left hundreds in the region seriously ill. Led by founder Dr. Frank I. Payne, members of the early Westerly Ambulance Corps stepped up and the newly-formed organization helped to build a makeshift hospital that provided care to more than 450 people in a month.
A century later, members of the organization are once again staring at the dangers of a global pandemic with COVID-19, and corps administration said the organization has implemented safety protocols and enhanced communication to address needs without putting staff at risk. The organization is following all protocols form the Centers for Disease Control and the Rhode Island Department of Health, Assistant Chief Michael T. Brancato and EMS Administrator Kenneth Richards III said, and will be ready to respond to any call for help.
“The ambulance corps is responding to all calls and are following all guidelines, which are issued as frequently as hourly,” Richards said. “What is changing the most is how we transport patients and that is a statewide thing.”
From Stonington through Richmond, local first responders are at the forefront of the coronavirus response. They are helping those who are ill and others concerned that they might be, some with symptoms and threat of spreading COVID-19 infection and taking those with severe symptoms to local medical facilities.
Richards and Brancato said that while adjustments are being made daily as more information is learned regarding the virus, first responders are trained on how to minimize the spread of infectious diseases.
The key to being successful, however, relies on enhancing communications across the region and partnering with the public to allow first responders to provide services in the fastest, most efficient way possible without spreading the disease.
Agencies across the region said they are also relying on mutual aid to address any increase in requests for service. There are no delays in service at this time, officials said.
Patients only please
The biggest change in services provided by ambulance organizations is that family members will no longer be allowed to ride in the ambulance with a patient.
Such changes are part of recommended guidelines shared through the state Department of Health Friday in an effort to curb exposure. The recommendations have already been implemented by the Westerly Ambulance Corps, the Charlestown Ambulance Rescue Service, the Hope Valley Ambulance Squad and the Ashaway Ambulance Association.
Those on the western banks of the Pawcatuck River including the Stonington Borough, Mystic River and North Stonington ambulance associations are following similar guidelines, according to Theresa A. Hersh, president of the Stonington Volunteer Ambulance Corps.
Equipment is ready
Hersh said local first responders aren’t simply relying on protocols to keep themselves safe, however. All members have completed proper fitness testing and have been directly fitted for a N95 respiratory mask to protect themselves.
Hersh, Richards and Kettle all said their agencies are also adhering to strict sanitation rules set forth by the CDC which require the ambulance to be directly disinfected and sanitized following nearly every patient. In cases where there is any risk for spread of coronavirus, the ambulance administrators each said added sanitation is taking place to assure the virus is not spread to those involved in the next call.
Kettle said the agencies also utilize more common sense practices as well, including always using medical gloves when assessing a patient and using other protections including goggles or gowns as necessary.
Many of these practices were in place long before concerns over COVID-19, Kettle and Hersh both said. Both said they have also instructed all first responders that if they are not feeling well, it is not worth the risk and they should stay home.
Communication is critical
As ambulance organizations continue to provide services, administrators from across the region said communication will remain the most critical component of EMS response. This will include enhanced communication with hospitals, ramping up efforts to educate the public and combating misinformation.
Brancato said his regional dispatchers have all been informed to ask those calling for assistance a set of basic questions that can help first responders determine before arriving whether there may be concerns regarding possible exposure to COVID-19.
“We’re asking callers whether they’ve had flu-like symptoms or fever, symptoms that would indicate the presence of the virus,” he said. “We have also been asking about where they have traveled recently, although as the disease continues to spread that question becomes a lot less important. The virus is everywhere.”
Brancato said dispatchers are also contacting hospitals in advance, sharing the risk assessment and determining the best way to deliver a patient for proper care. In some cases, he said this means a hospital may provide specific instructions or restrictions based on the type or number of cases they have in their emergency room.
Perhaps the most critical component of the effort is relaying proper information and dispelling a growing amount of misinformation available online.
Brancato said those with questions should seek answers only from the lead agencies.
Call your doctor first
Although some demographics are at higher risk for complications including the elderly, many will not suffer any life-threatening symptoms. First responders are asking that local residents who do not have an emergency avoid calling 911 as an influx of calls could tax the emergency response system.
Brancato, Richards, Hersh and Kettle all had the exact same advice for those concerned they may have contracted the virus: contact your doctor or primary care physician first.
Rhode Island residents who are concerned that they may have been exposed to the virus are also encouraged to use the state’s virus hotline.
The hotline is available 24 hours per day and is staffed with health care professionals for those with questions about the coronavirus or how to self-quarantine. The hotline is available at 401-222-8022.
For more information on COVID-19, including the latest data, visit https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/index.html.