By Henry Hawthorne IV
A surge in emergency COVID-19 calls is taking a physical and emotional toll on exhausted paramedics and emergency medical technicians who for the last year and a half have been caring for patients sick with the virus.
This rings true especially at Bladen County EMS, which has seen seven full-time staff fall ill with COVID-19 in the past two months, including a veteran Advanced EMT who clings to life in an area hospital ICU.
“That’s our people, that’s our family, and there is nothing we can do,” Bladen County EMS paramedic Samantha Bryant said last Thursday as she wiped tears from her eyes.
That morning, Bryant and the rest of the staff at Bladen County EMS learned their coworker’s health had taken a turn for the worse.
“She is the sweetest woman,” Bryant said. “She has worked here for years. She is my person. It’s hard to know that one of our own is in the situation she’s in.”
Bladen County EMS did not release the EMS worker’s name or the hospital she is in for privacy reasons.
For Bryant and her coworkers, their colleague’s health serves as a stark reminder to stay vigilant in protecting themselves against COVID as they handle the stress of a bigger workload.
For most of its history, Bladen County EMS was supported by four different volunteer services. Over the past few years, however, volunteer services have dwindled. Due to the effects of the pandemic, only one of those squads remains today – Bladenboro EMS.
“A lot of that was due to staffing issues,” said Bladen County EMS Director David Howell. “I found that volunteers just do not have the time to truly volunteer anymore, having to work more at their paying jobs. That contributed to the loss of that service, which was a tremendous blow to us.”
In Bladen County, 42% of the population is fully vaccinated against COVID-19, according to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services. That’s below the statewide rate of 52%.
To keep up with the county’s needs, Howell said he made the health and safety of his staff his priority.
Unlike hospitals, the workplace of EMS is an “uncontrolled, unpredictable environment,” Howell said, adding that he put in place new policies.
“If you respond to any type of call, you don PPE (personal protective equipment),” said Howell, who has been with Bladen County EMS since 2005 and has been its director since 2014. “We treat every patient as if they potentially have COVID.”
‘It was scary’
From the start of the pandemic, Bryant knew she had to be extra careful to protect her unborn child.
“It was scary,” she said. “I came to work that following week after I found out I was pregnant. I cried to my supervisor. It was awful.”
Howell said the EMS team helped Bryant overcome her fear and the uncertainty of pregnancy while working as a paramedic under the backdrop of a pandemic.
“If a COVID call came out, David would be like, ‘Here, sit in my office,’ and he would take the call,” Bryant said.
She also reflected on the support she received from Marc Moore, a fellow paramedic.
“My partner was awesome,” she said. “He made sure to go in the house first and tell the person that if they can walk out, to please walk out, ‘I have a pregnant girl with me. We are trying not to expose her.’”
Bryant said she had a duty to help her community as an EMS worker.
“Regardless of the situation, that person called 911,” she said. “That’s the worst day of their life. You have to do a job.”
Howell said he has seen the significance of promoting mental health among his staff.
“It’s tough, especially when you know these individuals in the community,” he said. “You pick them up and they are at that point, then you find out they are on a ventilator.”
For Howell, it’s the little things that help most, like “conversations and talking. Because a lot of times, if you are in it, you can relate. I just keep reminding these guys – there is power in prayer. We just continue to be positive and pray.”
Still, the increase of cases in July and August have presented new obstacles.
“We went a whole year, and I think we had a total of four staff members test positive out of 38 full-time people,” Howell said, “but since August, I have seen seven full-time people who have tested positive.”
Howell said he tries to maintain a “family environment.”
“It’s a small service,” he said, “so we try to look after each other as much as we can.”
Shifting attitudes on vaccine
Bladen County EMS has “no official policy on vaccines,” Howell said.
“It is highly recommended, but we do not have any mandate for it,” he said, adding that he is vaccinated. “I still believe it is your choice and should be your choice.”
Howell said he has noticed growing support for the vaccine among his staff.
“I hear a lot of the medics make comments about, ‘More people need to be vaccinated’ and ‘People need to think about gatherings wearing a mask.’ I’ve even heard comments like, ‘I bet this person wouldn’t be this bad if they were vaccinated.’ I think the majority of them see the importance of it.”
Wearing masks, Howell said, is now “second nature,” and he hasn’t had issues with medics not wanting to use them.
Bryant said she is always thinking about her child’s safety.
“I have to think of my daughter,” she said. “If I’m pumping gas and not washing my hands properly and picking her up, taking her out of the car seat, what that might do to her? I’m very detailed with that kind of stuff.”
Bryant said she waited until May to get the vaccine.
“I was very, very nervous about it. Looking back, I would have gotten the vaccine when I was pregnant. I highly recommend it to a lot of women today. If you are pregnant, it is OK. Anything to protect you and your baby. I personally got a vaccine for my child because I have to deal with a lot of sick people.”