On the front lines

EMTs struggle with high caseloads, finding supplies

Posted on Feb 26, 2021 :: Health Care Heroes
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

Emergency medical technicians have played a vital role in the battle against the coronavirus, whether it’s taking sick patients to the hospital or moving them from one location to another.

When the first COVID-19 cases were reported a year ago, a strange phenomenon happened at Gold Cross Ambulance Service, Inc.: The number of calls went down.

“People were afraid to call 911 or go to the hospital,” says Mark Fredrickson, executive director of Gold Cross, which covers 1,200 square miles in portions of Calumet, Outagamie, Waupaca and Winnebago counties and responds to more than 21,000 calls a year.

“It’s definitely been an interesting (year). Nursing homes have practically shut down and the influenza rate is way down,” he says. “Our runs are up now since the people who didn’t want to call us before are now really sick and have to go in.”

Calls also fell in the initial months of the pandemic for Shawano Ambulance Service, but as the number of COVID-19 cases grew in late summer, Patrick Trinko, director of operations, says the volume of calls skyrocketed.

“We saw call volumes outstrip our ability to respond. We were transferring patients to hospitals several hours away — as far as Kenosha — because no other hospitals had beds available,” he says. “We were stacking non-emergent requests and getting to them after we were able to meet our emergent obligations.”

Throughout the pandemic, safety and making sure employees have had enough personal protective gear have remained top concerns, Fredrickson says. “We have certain protocols of what we need to wear if someone has a respiratory issue … the N95 masks, goggles, face shields, gowns, gloves.”

Unfortunately, both Gold Cross and Shawano Ambulance reported the price for those essential materials increased dramatically. “We used to get some pieces for 75 cents each and then they went up to $7.50. Volume got scarce for a while, but now everyone has plenty of PPE,” Fredrickson says.

To keep employees’ spirits up — especially during the busy times — Trinko says the whole Shawano Ambulance team pulled together, with shift captains and administrators pitching in to help with the extreme influx of calls. “This sent the signal that we were all in this together,” he says.

While Fredrickson sees a “light at the end of the tunnel with the vaccine,” he does worry that another pandemic could happen. “Our staff (of 140) is resilient and we stay focused on our work of helping others.”