How Austin EMS Is Fighting Covid-19

Friday, May 1st 2020

Paramedics are often the first people to help someone with severe Covid-19 symptoms. Judy Maggio talks with Selena Xie, president of the Austin EMS Association and paramedic Phil Barquer about how life has changed for first responders due to the pandemic, and what procedures are in place to keep both themselves and the people they help safe.

Judy Maggio: We have asked two paramedics with Austin EMS, Selena Xie and Phil Barquer, to talk to us about life on the streets as a medic, and also the changes that have taken place for first responders due to Covid-19 pandemic.

Selena Xie: It has been quite a bit of change. Basically, we've had to, in a way, reinvent our whole agency post the beginning of Covid-19. It's changed all the PPE that we need to wear, our level of suspicion, how we approach every call. Even when you call 911 for the first time, it's changed our communication center. So, for example, we now have a group of paramedics that are in the communication center, and if one of our communication medics thinks that the call might be Covid-related, they'll actually transfer it over to the paramedics who can do a detailed assessment, and even provide guidance on staying home if their symptoms do not require them to be in a hospital.

Judy Maggio: Phil, I want to hear about life as one of the lead people on an ambulance during this pandemic. What procedures are in place? What have you seen that you can share with us? What information do you want to give people?

Phil Barquer: Life on an ambulance has changed drastically for us. Normally you'd call, we'd show up at your house and we would just park the ambulance, walk right in with our safety glasses and gloves on. Now we really have to make sure we stop and we choose the correct PPE before we walk in. Right now we're wearing N95 masks on all the calls, and that's gonna be county-wide.

In the big picture though for us, we find ourselves cleaning a lot more, when we walk back in and we see different things. You're cleaning your shoes, you're cleaning your hands, you're cleaning your face, you're taking more showers on duty. We're washing the station a lot more, not just the ambulance. And you're a lot more busy in your downtime running between all the calls just so we don't have any of that spread and we're not the cause of it. So it changes a little bit more when you come into work till when you go home. Your life has changed a lot because you want to make sure you treat everybody the same out in the field and you take care as best you can. But you also don't bring anything home to your family.

Judy Maggio: I'm just wondering, from both of your perspectives, what would you like people to understand about your work and the importance of what you do? Because in many ways you are our first line of defense out there.

Selena Xie: Yeah, I think EMS is unique because right now we're actually seeing almost a quarter to a third of our calls are Covid-related. And so we're actually able to take a huge burden off the healthcare system if we're able to divert calls outside of the ER. We know that when we take a patient to the ER, the chances that they are admitted go up exponentially. And so every person that we can make sure we're providing the right level of care for them rather than going to the ER, saves the county money. And also it's just helping people make the best decision.

Judy Maggio: How do you think this is going to change life for first responders moving forward when life gets back to whatever the new normal is going to be?

Phil Barquer: I think it's going to change significantly for us. I think it already has, and I think this is going to be the start of our new normal. For example, my wife is a local emergency room nurse. So she's dealing with this on the back end when we drop patients off at the ER. She's getting Covid patients at the hospitals. I'm getting Covid patients in the field, and when we come home we both make sure we don't bring our work clothes home with us anymore. She brings a change of clothes to the hospital and changes before she comes home. I bring spare clothes to the station, shower and change before I come home. That way we don't bring anything possibly into our house. Also, our home life has changed as well. We're sitting on opposite ends of the couch now, giving ourselves a little bit of distance at home, because we both know at some point we could be an asymptomatic carrier, to infect the other one and that propagates the spread throughout our community by just simply going to work and doing our jobs.

Selena Xie: I also think that a lot of the systems that we're putting in place now, we are thinking about those systems continuing to be in place after Covid-19. So when we came up with our new PPE guidelines, we weren't just thinking about Covid-19, you'll see that they never say Covid-19 in the actual guidelines, it says infectious disease. And so we are trying to build something that is actually useful that we can take in the future. And regardless, we know that Covid-19 will be with us for years to come.

*This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. *

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