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What's It Like On The Front Lines of a Pandemic? Ask A Paramedic

A paramedic selfie inside an ambluance.
Dave Cohen is a paramedic in Colchester, Essex and Charlotte. He recently was quarantined after being exposed to a COVID-19 patient.

The COVID-19 pandemic is stretching the resources of the health care system, both here in Vermont and around the country. Health care workers, especially in hospitals, must come in contact with patients who have the coronavirus, but so must emergency workers who run ambulances and other response systems.

VPR’s Henry Epp spoke with paramedic Dave Cohen. Their interview is below and has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Henry Epp: What is your work like during this pandemic?

Dave Cohen: It's both completely the same and completely different. The job really is still the job that it always was — getting out into the field and into people's homes and taking care of them in that moment of crisis when they just need somebody. We do it with more clothing than we used to, though we've always had that level of protection and needed it occasionally. But every call now going in with full PPE and the full stress of trying to evaluate: Is this a covered case? Is it not? How am I gonna handle it and keeping myself safe? But more importantly, [how will I handle it while] keeping my partner safe and keeping my crew safe and keeping my service safe? And then, hopefully, without bringing anything home to my family and to my wife and to my children. It's it's just more.

It's more of a job than it ever was.

Have you seen a fair amount of patients who either do have COVID-19 or or think they might? 

There have been some. I mean, interestingly, I think there are more people having respiratory issues or who believe that they are having respiratory issues. I certainly have seen patients that have ended up COVID positive. I've [also] certainly seen some more patients that are in respiratory distress.

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We've also been seeing statistics that suggest that fewer people are seeking medical help for conditions that are not related to the Coronavirus. Are you witnessing a change in the reasons why people are calling an ambulance, or are heart attacks and broken legs and everything else still happening at more or less the same rate?

Everything else is definitely still happening. I think what we're seeing is kind of a refining of why people are calling. In the past, people would call 9-1-1 because they were worried. They're worried something could be wrong; might be wrong. Now, I think that uncertainty and that stress is counterbalanced by the uncertainty and stress of not wanting to be in the hospital and not wanting to tie up resources.

"It's a scary, scary time. And it's OK to be scared...Know that the people doing [this] are there because of empathy and care and a willingness to be there to help." — Paramedic Dave Cohen

You mentioned the additional PPE that you're using now and that you have that risk on your mind in a different way. Do you have adequate PPE to perform your job safely?

We do, yeah — on all of the services I work. And I give credit to the chiefs of all of them [for that]. They've done just an amazing job keeping us equipped and keeping us safe, both in the PPE we wear, but also in the cleaning supplies that we need and disinfecting protocols that we have.

Do you feel like you're getting the support that you need from higher-ups — essentially from the broader health care system and from the state?

The answer to that is yes. I think traditionally there's been a lack of general support for E.M.S. [and] E.M.S. practitioners both nationally and locally, as far as resources and support services and pay and all those things that we need. So it's hard to divorce what's going on right now from that.

When it comes to support specifically for our COVID operations, man, they're working so hard to try to stay ahead of this for us. It's been really nice to see. There are always frustrations around 'if only' and 'could we have' and 'I wish.' But it's not for a lack of wanting from the state level and district level and service level. It's it's just the reality of how difficult it is across the board right now.

If folks are calling 9-1-1, especially in this time, whether for COVID-19 symptoms or for any other reason, what should people know in terms of how you're approaching the job and what they can expect from paramedics and other E.M.S. workers right now?

Well, the first thing I'd say is that what they can expect is that they're getting people who are coming to their house or their place of work or wherever who just absolutely care and want to be there. So I'd say to everyone: Take comfort in that.

Then the next thing is, we're all coming in wearing a lot of scary clothing — the gowns and the face shields and the masks and the gloves. And we're all being hyper-cognizant of what's going on and of the risks that we're taking. But know that everyone is taking them because we're trained to do it and we're hopefully doing it in the right way. It's a scary, scary time. And it's OK to be scared. And it's scary when you're not feeling well and the ambulance comes to your house. But know that the people doing it are there because of empathy and care and a willingness to be there to help.

Curious about what it's like to work as a nurse right now in the homes of patients recovering from COVID-19 in Vermont? See this story.

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