IOWA CITY — Many professions have adapted during the COVID-19 pandemic by working remotely, but that’s not an option for paramedics and emergency medical technicians.
For the Corridor’s ambulance services, that means taking additional precautions these days to protect employees.
“We do have to treat every patient as though they could possibly have COVID-19 or influenza,” said Fiona Johnson, director of the Johnson County Ambulance Service. “We learned very quickly on that we had to take precautions on every single call we went on.”
Both the Johnson County Ambulance Service and Area Ambulance in Cedar Rapids report their call volumes are down during the pandemic. Johnson County said its call volume was down 10 percent in both February and March, then 28 percent in April.
“With that said,” director Johnson said, “we are transporting more patients than usual and are seeing significantly sicker patients.”
Keith Rippy, chief executive officer for Area Ambulance, which serves Cedar Rapids, Marion and several other communities, said both its call and transport volume are down 50 percent.
Rippy believes those numbers have fallen so drastically because people are concerned about being exposed to the disease.
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“My sense is it’s more about ‘I don’t want to go to the hospital. I don’t want to get on an ambulance because I’m afraid of being exposed,’” he said.
Rippy said another factor in the decreased call volume is the greater reliance upon telemedicine. He believes patients are using that to contact their care providers and receive some medical assistance that otherwise might have been handled by first responders.
“That’s a good thing,” he said. “They’re getting their medical problems dealt with. I think when all of this COVID-19 is over with, telemedicine will have found a place in delivering health care.”
Johnson also suspects people are waiting longer to call 911 than they might have in the past. She said when the outbreak first began, there was a lot of anxiety over COVID-19 and questions about getting tested. As the disease has spread, people are more hesitant to go to the hospital.
“It’s been really interesting to see how that shift has unfolded,” Johnson said.
Even though call volume is down for both agencies, the inherent risk of exposure to COVID-19 remains the same. Both Johnson and Rippy said their employees at a minimum wear masks, goggles and gloves on every call.
Dispatchers are asking callers extra questions about possible exposure to COVID-19 and affirmative answers to those questions trigger the use of additional personal protective equipment, including gowns, bootees and face shields.
Efforts to protect emergency medical personnel don’t stop when a call is over.
Rippy said Area Ambulance puts its equipment through a decontamination process at the end of each shift.
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The interior of the ambulance is first exposed to an ultraviolet light and then everything is wiped down with a mixture of hydrogen peroxide and water. Johnson reported the county ambulance service also relies upon UV light and a disinfectant spray to decontaminate ambulances.
Johnson said responding to emergency calls in the middle of a pandemic does take a toll on her employees. But she credits wellness checks and an outpouring of community support in helping to maintain morale. She expressed pride in the work they are doing during difficult times.
“They come in every single day,” Johnson said. “They are facing these obstacles just gracefully and are just continuing to provide the same amazing care they always provide. ... I’m really proud of them.”
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