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‘Webster is one of the towns with the most COVID patients’

How Webster’s EMS medics are tackling COVID-19



First responders are putting themselves at risk every day amidst COVID-19 as they continue to protect their communities. Medics in Webster are among those continuing to protect and save lives on a regular basis.

Syed Ahmed Mustafa, president of the board of directors for Northeast Quadrant Advanced Life Support (NEQALS) and Webster Emergency Medical Services (WEMS), Webster’s primary ambulance agencies, shared a bit about what life is like for medics on the frontlines.

How has COVID-19 changed the way NEQALS and WEMS operate? (E.g. equipment, precautions, responses, etc.)

Mustafa says both agencies have taken extra precautions to protect both staff and patients. For instance, medics are required to wear glasses, masks (surgical or N95, depending on the call), and gloves at all times.

If a call includes a suspected COVID-19 case, medics must also wear gowns. They must also wear gowns if procedures involving the airway (breathing treatments, intubations, CPR) are required.

If a patient exhibits potential signs of the coronavirus, he or she is also gowned once medics arrive.

But the precautions don’t stop there. Mustafa says they take extra precautions in between calls as well.

For example, at the start of every shift, staff thoroughly wipes down every part of the ambulance, and after every call, they do another quick wipe down at the hospital. When they return to the base after a call, they do a more extensive cleaning using a different cleaning solution. Mustafa said this ensures that every surface is wiped down with a different cleaning solution at least every shift.

If the ambulance just transported a suspected COVID patient, once a thorough wipedown of the ambulance is done at the base, the ambulance doors are left open and the vehicle is out of service for at least three hours.

“Fortunately, Webster EMS has five ambulances, so we can easily rotate ambulances,” said Mustafa.

Have there been many calls in Webster involving suspected/confirmed coronavirus patients?

Unfortunately, Mustafa said there have been many calls in Webster where a patient was suspected or confirmed to be infected with the virus.

“Webster is one of the towns with the most COVID patients,” said Mustafa. “NEQALS responds with Webster EMS, Penfield Ambulance, and West Webster Ambulance to several urgent cares, nursing homes, [and] assisted living facilities, most of which have potential and confirmed COVID patients.”

Has the number of calls increased?

“No, in fact we are seeing a significant decrease in calls,” said Mustafa.

When the stay-at-home order first took effect in March, Mustafa said calls “dropped significantly” - almost 50%.

“In fact, we had a day with zero calls for both NEQ and WEMS - something we don't see even in the worst blizzards,” said Mustafa.

In April, Mustafa said the calls were off 30-40%. Any calls received that month were for patients who were very sick and were putting off going to the hospital until the very last minute.

How do NEQALS and WEMS operate with social distancing measures?

With a very small base, social distancing is challenging to maintain for these agencies. But Mustafa said they are doing their best to keep everyone spaced apart.

That being said, Mustafa said in some cases, it’s not practical to maintain a distance of six feet. With staff working together all the time, he said the distancing is “not really necessary.”

Whenever a member of the crew has to go out in public (to grab food, for instance), he or she, of course, must wear a mask.

For staff members who do not want to risk bringing the virus home to their families, Mustafa said Hilton International, through the National Association of Emergency Medical Technicians (NAEMT), allows EMS professionals to stay at the Hampton Inn in Webster for free.

“This is a totally voluntary action that the Hampton Inn in Webster has chosen to participate in and we are very grateful for their support of EMS professionals in Webster,” said Mustafa.

Have Webster residents been adhering to quarantine and social distancing mandates?

“I think many are trying, though some days I go to the big box stores and the parking lots are as full as always,” said Mustafa. He added that he also notices people wearing masks under their noses because it's hard to breathe through the mask.

“We need to take the social distancing seriously [because], in my opinion, the reason we have a relatively low COVID infection rate in our region is because we are keeping our distance,” said Mustafa.

“I love seeing families walking together, playing in their yards, walking in parks, all away from other families,” he added. “That's all great. If we can hang in there 2-4 more weeks and make sure we've gotten this virus contained, we'll all be better for it.”

What has been the most challenging thing first responders have had to deal with/adjust to so far during COVID-19?

Although some of the medics are more experienced and have a “keen awareness” of blood borne and air borne illnesses - such as HIV, AIDS, SARs, Avian Flu, TB, etc. - Mustafa said the coronavirus is still a big unknown.

“For a majority of our staff, this is the first pandemic they've experienced,” shared Mustafa. “However, even for us more experienced folks, there is the fear of the unknown - Can we get it? Will we infect our family or friends? Will it kill some of us?”

Mustafa makes it a point to remind his staff to follow their training, wear the appropriate personal protective equipment, change their clothes at work before returning home, and “watch out for each other.”

“And it will all be good,” said Mustafa.

Another thing Mustafa said the agencies have to look out for with their staff is post traumatic stress disorder. Medics may experience PTSD while at the frontlines, facing the high risk of being exposed to the virus on a daily basis.

“We think of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and are paying close attention to our staff now to make sure they are physically and emotionally well during these trying times,” Mustafa shared. “While everyone else can stay home, our medics must work and are going to calls where there is a high risk of being exposed to patients with COVID.”

What are some things you would like residents to remember during COVID-19, from a first responders' standpoint?

“First, it is safe to call an ambulance if you think you need it,” said Mustafa. “Our fleet is thoroughly disinfected and our staff is wearing all appropriate PPE. We are here for you, as we were before and will be tomorrow.”

In addition, Mustafa says the ambulance services are only paid for the calls they take. They are not fully funded by tax monies. So such a drastic drop in call volume is most certainly going to impact the agencies financially.

“We'll need the support of our community, now more than ever in the coming months,” said Mustafa.

With everyone facing their own personal challenges and some experiencing traumatic loss of loved ones, having first responders ready and willing to put their lives on the line to keep others safe is a blessing and reason for hope.

The Webster community is thankful for its first responders and all they do.

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