Paramedics and EMTs are coping with an approximate 50 percent increase in emergency medical calls, plus a rise in coronavirus cases among their own ranks, putting pressure on a workforce already stretched thin. Some emergency medical personnel are taking on 16 hour shifts, where a typical workday might be 8 to 12 hours, according to the union that represents the FDNY emergency medical workers.
"We were short-staffed prior to this epidemic, and now we are barely holding the line," said Oren Barzilay, president of Local 2507.
Barzilay said that as of Thursday, 50 of his members had tested positive for COVID-19. But an additional 400 workers were out sick with symptoms of the illness. All while the pace of the job has intensified. The FDNY said it typically responds to about 4,000 calls per day. But since the coronavirus pandemic hit New York City, calls have topped well over 5,000. "Over this last weekend and continuing into this week we've seen a spike as high as 6,200," said Perry, an EMS worker based in the East Village. "Every day they've been over 5,000. Manhattan has always been a large source for many of those calls. However, recently the outer boroughs have begun to get a lot busier." On Wednesday, the FDNY responded to 5,800 calls, according to fire department officials. And with the potential for increased exposure to coronavirus patients, ambulances are blaring their sirens and trying to move faster.
"It's no coincidence people have been hearing more sirens from our ambulances," said Perry, who asked that not use his last name because he was not authorized to speak on the situation. "Because of the broad definition of suspicion for COVID cases, many people who could very well have a common cold or the flu are being transported with lights and sirens when we normally would not. This is not because we believe they are unstable, but it is recommended that we do so to minimize our contact time with the patient."
The fire department is trying to get the word out to only call 911 in a true emergency. If people have serious symptoms, like difficulty breathing, they should go to an emergency room. People should only call 911 when they need immediate help, according to a PSA that the FDNY released this week.
As for EMS workers, Barzilay said he wants them to have more protective gear. Currently, emergency medical personnel wear either a surgical mask or N95 protective mask when appropriate. But Barzilay thinks workers should be wearing full-body protective gear when they respond to a call involving a potential coronavirus patient. "We have been asking this question everyday that we speak with [the FDNY], and the answer that we get is 'we're not there yet,'" Barzilay said. The FDNY said it is following guidelines issued by the state, city and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on the use of protective equipment."If we're going to continue at this pace, of our members getting sick — I mean, it's more and more every day," Barzilay said, "you're not going to have anybody to put in those suits."