As Otsego County deals with a COVID-19 outbreak, first responders fall ill

Apr 7, 2020

 

Community members painted signs thanking EMS workers outside their building in Otsego County.
Credit Otsego County EMS/Rescue/Hazmat Facebook

On one particularly bad day, Otsego County EMS responded to six COVID-19 emergency calls. Later, paramedics started getting sick. 

Right now, about 20 percent of Otsego County’s 36 EMS staff are out because of the virus. That includes those in quarantine, those sick, and an employee on voluntary leave for health concerns.

Two EMS staff are now hospitalized, with one on a ventilator, and more showing symptoms or awaiting test results due to exposure.

 

As of Monday, Otsego County has 26 positive cases of COVID-19, the largest number of cases in a northern Michigan county. Dozens of people were possibly exposed at two concert in Gaylord in March.

 

It appears the virus has now spread in the community and to those fighting it on the front lines. Since the outbreak, three county EMS staff have tested positive for COVID-19.

Jon Deming, the county’s EMS chief and emergency manager, says paramedics wear full protective gear, similar to the PPE hospital workers wear. But, he says it’s still possible his employees are picking up the virus during transport.

“In the back of the ambulance is a tight environment,” he says. “Even with N95s, and sometimes they’re using PAPRs (powered air purifying respirators), you don’t know what could go wrong.”

Deming says the health department hasn’t been able to definitively answer whether EMS staff were exposed on the job or in the community. 

Still, the paramedics’ health are monitored and they are guaranteed tests. 

The health department notifies emergency services when a transport has a positive COVID-19 result.

 

Then, responders are tested and quarantined, pending results. Deming says tests results can take a few days to get back, which impacts his staffing.

Still, his small team remains positive.

“I’ve got a great staff, Deming says. “They’re still functioning and morale’s good.” 

With 20 percent of his staff out, Deming says last week he needed help from neighboring communities, Frederick and Tri-Township, to make hospital runs.

Now, he’s able to meet the current demand with a skeleton crew, eight on duty.

Deming says he’s hopeful they’ve seen the worst already. He says the governor's "shelter in place" order seems to have slowed the number of recent emergency calls.

“We’re seeing a lot less calls for 911 services, and a lot less of those type patients than what we had a couple weeks ago,” he says.