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In ambulances, an unseen, unwelcome passenger: COVID-19

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It is crowded at the back of the ambulance.

Two emergency medical technicians, the affected person, the gurney — and an unseen and unwelcome passenger lurking within the air.

For EMTs Thomas Hoang and Joshua Hammond, the coronavirus is consistently shut. COVID-19 has turn into their largest worry throughout 24-hour shifts in California’s Orange County, using with them from 911 name to 911 name, from affected person to affected person.

They and different EMTs, paramedics and 911 dispatchers in Southern California have been thrust into the entrance strains of the nationwide epicenter of the pandemic. They’re scrambling to assist these in want as hospitals burst with a surge of sufferers after the vacations, ambulances are caught ready exterior hospitals for hours till beds turn into out there, oxygen tanks are in alarmingly quick provide and the vaccine rollout has been sluggish.

EMTs and paramedics have at all times handled life and loss of life — they make split-second selections about affected person care, which hospital to race to, the most effective and quickest strategy to save somebody — and now they’re only a breath away from turning into the affected person themselves.


Emergency medical technician Joshua Hammond, 25, of Emergency Ambulance Service, drives an ambulance to his station in Placentia, Calif. Friday, Jan. 8, 2021. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

Emergency medical technician Joshua Hammond, 25, of Emergency Ambulance Service, drives an ambulance to his station in Placentia, Calif. Friday, Jan. 8, 2021. (AP Photograph/Jae C. Hong)

They robe up, masks up and glove up, “however you possibly can solely be so protected,” Hammond mentioned. “We don’t have the posh of being 6 toes aside from the affected person.”

Statistics on COVID-19 instances and deaths amongst EMTs and paramedics — particularly ones employed by non-public corporations — are exhausting to search out. They’re thought-about important well being care staff however not often obtain the pay and protections given to docs and nurses.

Hammond and Hoang work for Emergency Ambulance Service Inc., a personal ambulance firm in Southern California. They, like so many others, have lengthy fostered objectives of turning into first responders to serve their communities.

Hoang is attending nursing faculty. Hammond is one check away from turning into a paramedic. Each had been referred to as to a life within the medical discipline after traumatic experiences: Hammond needed to name 911 after his mom had an allergic response, and Hoang witnessed a younger bicyclist get hit by a automotive.

But as COVID-19 infections surge and the dangers enhance, they marvel: Is it price risking your life — and the lives of your family members at house — for a small paycheck and a dream?

“It is actually exhausting to justify it past ‘I actually need to assist folks,’” mentioned Hammond, 25. “Is that well worth the danger?”

For now, sure.

“I do need to do my half in serving to folks get higher, in a way,” mentioned Hoang, 29.

And so their day begins at 7 a.m.

Sporting masks, Hoang and Hammond clear their ambulance and gear, wiping down each floor even when the earlier crew scrubbed it already. They take no possibilities throughout their daylong shift overlaying the Orange County metropolis of Placentia.

The 911 calls are available with restricted data: a damaged bone, chest ache, issue respiratory, stomachache, fever. Each affected person is a possible provider of the coronavirus, whether or not they realize it or not.

Typically, folks know they’re contaminated and inform 911 dispatchers earlier than the EMTs arrive. Different occasions, the signs themselves — fever, shortness of breath — sign a doable case. However Hammond remembers one girl, affected by hip ache, who did not inform him or his companion about her coronavirus analysis.

He solely came upon afterward, saying it bolstered the significance of treating each affected person as if they’ve examined constructive.

“That was undoubtedly a name the place we realized so much,” Hammond mentioned.

In contrast to docs and nurses, first responders should go inside properties. They stroll into sizzling zones the place everybody in a family is sick, the place the virus is within the air. They carry motionless sufferers onto gurneys, their masked faces simply inches aside.

They race to hospitals already overwhelmed with sick folks, generally solely to attend hours exterior earlier than their affected person could be admitted. After which they do all of it once more when the following 911 name is available in.

“We don’t know the top consequence,” Hoang mentioned. “We solely know the start to the hospital.”

Then there are those that direct the EMTs the place to go. In Los Angeles County, 20 miles (32 kilometers) northwest from Hoang and Hammond, three younger girls stood earlier than six screens apiece lately, speaking into headsets with clear, clipped voices, marshaling different ambulance crews round a territory stretching from the mountains to the ocean.

Ashley Cortez, Adreanna Moreno and Jaime Hopper work 12-hour shifts as dispatchers for Care Ambulance Service Inc. If the EMTs are the entrance strains, these girls are the scouts.

They play chess with ambulances all day. When one will get caught at a hospital for eight, 10 or 12 hours, the dispatchers should reposition the others to cowl its space. When an EMT studies a constructive COVID-19 check, the dispatchers should discover a strategy to cowl the ambulance’s calls if the entire crew should quarantine. When one family has a number of coronavirus sufferers requiring two ambulances, the dispatchers need to plug the outlet.

Their best worry is what’s referred to as a “stage zero” — when there aren’t any ambulances left to ship to an emergency. In Los Angeles County, one of many nation’s hardest-hit counties in the course of the pandemic, the worry turns into an everyday actuality.

For Moreno, 28, the nervousness begins the night time earlier than her shift.

“I lay there and know I will are available, and I do know I will don’t have any models to run these calls,” she mentioned.

On Christmas weekend, Cortez watched as name after name piled up on her display screen — with no ambulances out there. Usually, it takes 30 seconds to ship one out. That weekend, it took as much as 15 minutes. And this was even earlier than ambulances began languishing exterior hospitals for hours.


“I used to be simply in disbelief,” mentioned Cortez, 26.

There’s not way more the dispatchers can do. They watch these screens. They take heed to radio chatter. They rearrange the crews to cowl probably the most territory doable. They usually marvel what recent horror awaits in a virus-ravaged world the place the hazards are too many and the ambulances are too few.

“What if one thing occurs to my daughter,” Cortez mentioned, “and there was no person to ship for her?”


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