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Southern Illinois EMS Providers Face Challenges During COVID Surge

A cartoon image of an ambulance
Jackson County Ambulance Services has seen an increase in calls during the latest COVID surge.

We've been hearing from health professionals about the severity of the COVID 19 surge driven by the contagious Delta variant. Hospitals are stretched thin, especially when it comes to ICU beds. The current surge of patients impacts the entire health care system. I spoke with Jackson County ambulance service director Kenton Schafer about the impact on EMS providers.

Whiteside: To start, I'd like to ask what you're seeing on the ground right now is first responders.

Schafer: It's extremely busy for us. Matter of fact, much more busy now than it was when this started. Initially, our call volume dropped substantially in the beginning of 2020. I think people were staying home. You know, we had all kinds of government direction about things that were closed, don't go out, you know, don't go to the hospital. Since then, the vaccine has come out and the Delta variant has resurged. And it seems to be, from what we have experienced, that the Delta variant affects younger, healthier people. And more of those people tend to live at home and they've now heard enough about it and seen enough about it that they call us to take them to the hospital whenever they believe they're having symptoms.

Whiteside: We hear a lot about ICU bed availability. Are you having to take patients to hospitals farther away than you might typically transport them?

Schafer: We have not specifically because our hospitals here are full, but there are certain sometimes the patients need to go to hospitals for more definitive care other than for COVID. So what we have found is that some of the hospitals that we typically transport to that are closer to our region, for those patients to receive definitive care, we now have to go to hospitals that are four, five, six hours away. Obviously, that takes longer for us. A two hour transfer, we can have the crew back in five hours, a six hour transfer, you know, takes us to 13 hours to get the crew back.

Whiteside: How are your staff handling this latest surge?

Schafer: It it's it's definitely added a lot more stress for our staff. You know, they now have to wear PPE on every call, they have to do more complex disinfection procedures on our equipment. And it's a level of psychological stress just to know that this is part of your job, that you're going to be in a six foot by eight foot box with, you know, someone that is infected with a potentially deadly disease.

Whiteside: Have your response times been affected by the surge?

Schafer: Our call response time has not gone up. We've had an increase in call volume which has caused us to try to add more staff and, you know, have more people available, which is hard whenever we're facing staff shortages.

Whiteside: And so you said you've seen younger patients in this surge, but are you seeing sicker patients, too?

Schafer: No, it's mostly the demographics that are different. We had sick people previous to this, but it was a different demographic. You know, it wasn't the younger, healthier people that are at home. We had a lot of congregate living transfers. A lot of calls to congregate living facilities and transport those patients to the hospital. And they were sick at that time. But we didn't have as many of those patients transferred because they receive care, at least at some level, in those facilities. And they you know, the physicians, were seeing them in house. And and it wasn't as dramatic an increase in our call volume as this particular Delta variant has been. It has significantly increased our call volume. I think people that want to go to the hospital, I think because there's enough publicity about the Delta variant and that it's a particularly easier transmissible strain. And I believe, you know, people want to seek out emergent care quicker.

Whiteside: Is there anything else you think people should know about the Delta variant? Just be aware of it. You know, follow the safety guidelines as best you can.

Schafer: I would recommend that they get vaccinated. The vaccine has been proven that, you know, it will not prevent the disease, but it certainly helps you from being becoming so ill that you may need hospitalization or even worse to be placed on a ventilator. I think the numbers have proven that, you know, the vaccine prevents at least a level of sickness.

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Steph Whiteside is a Digital Media News Specialist with WSIU radio in Carbondale, Ill. She previously worked as a general reporter at AJ+ and Current TV. In her free time, she likes to knit and try to relive the ‘90s through music.