In 1919, Westerly residents were hit hard by a Spanish flu pandemic that left hundreds in the region seriously ill. Led by founder Dr. Frank I. Payne, members of the early Westerly Ambulance Corps stepped up and the newly-formed organization helped to build a makeshift hospital that provided care to more than 450 people in a month.
A century later, members of the organization are once again staring at the dangers of a global pandemic with COVID-19, and corps administration said the organization has implemented safety protocols and enhanced communication to address needs without putting staff at risk. The organization is following all protocols form the Centers for Disease Control and the Rhode Island Department of Health, Assistant Chief Michael T. Brancato and EMS Administrator Kenneth Richards III said, and will be ready to respond to any call for help.
“The ambulance corps is responding to all calls and are following all guidelines, which are issued as frequently as hourly,” Richards said. “What is changing the most is how we transport patients and that is a statewide thing.”
From Stonington through Richmond, local first responders are at the forefront of the coronavirus response. They are helping those who are ill and others concerned that they might be, some with symptoms and threat of spreading COVID-19 infection and taking those with severe symptoms to local medical facilities.
Richards and Brancato said that while adjustments are being made daily as more information is learned regarding the virus, first responders are trained on how to minimize the spread of infectious diseases.
The key to being successful, however, relies on enhancing communications across the region and partnering with the public to allow first responders to provide services in the fastest, most efficient way possible without spreading the disease.
Agencies across the region said they are also relying on mutual aid to address any increase in requests for service. There are no delays in service at this time, officials said.
“This is where we started. It’s one of the reasons that the corps was first founded and we will be ready to respond, no matter the need,” Brancato said.
Patients only please
The biggest change in services provided by ambulance organizations is that family members will no longer be allowed to ride in the ambulance with a patient.
If the individual that needs transport is a minor or someone with significant special needs, ambulance agencies in the region will allow one parent or legal guardian to accompany the patient to the hospital if needed. Anyone else seeking to accompany the patient to a hospital will be required to secure their own transportation, according to a release from the Department of Health.
“Temperature assessments of anyone going by ambulance will occur prior to entrance of the ambulance and then again at the hospital,” guidelines from the Department of Health state.
Such changes are part of recommended guidelines shared through the state Department of Health Friday in an effort to curb exposure. The recommendations have already been implemented by the Westerly Ambulance Corps, the Charlestown Ambulance Rescue Service, the Hope Valley Ambulance Squad and the Ashaway Ambulance Association.
Hospitals are also restricting access to visitors and patients who do are not experiencing an emergency and urged residents who plan to meet a patient at the hospital to first call ahead and be aware of restrictions, officials said.
Those on the western banks of the Pawcatuck River including the Stonington Borough, Mystic River and North Stonington ambulance associations are following similar guidelines, according to Theresa A. Hersh, president of the Stonington Volunteer Ambulance Corps.
Another change in the response is a request that the patient meet first responders outside whenever possible, Richards said. The goal is to limit the number of doors that first responders have access to and to limit the interaction to that necessary for medical attention.
“Please understand we have the best interest of your loved ones, yourself and our dedicated staff in mind by implementing this policy at this time,” the Hope Valley Volunteer Fire department said in a press release.
Equipment is ready
Hersh said local first responders aren’t simply relying on protocols to keep themselves safe, however. All members have completed proper fitness testing and have been directly fitted for a N95 respiratory mask to protect themselves.
Similar masks have also been distributed to Westerly Ambulance staff, Richards confirmed, and Charlestown Ambulance Rescue Chief Andrew D. Kettle said his staff also has access to such masks as needed to protect responders.
Hersh, Richards and Kettle all said their agencies are also adhering to strict sanitation rules set forth by the CDC which require the ambulance to be directly disinfected and sanitized following nearly every patient. In cases where there is any risk for spread of coronavirus, the ambulance administrators each said added sanitation is taking place to assure the virus is not spread to those involved in the next call.
Kettle said the agencies also utilize more common sense practices as well, including always using medical gloves when assessing a patient and using other protections including goggles or gowns as necessary.
Many of these practices were in place long before concerns over COVID-19, Kettle and Hersh both said. Both said they have also instructed all first responders that if they are not feeling well, it is not worth the risk and they should stay home.
“For us, this is honestly some pretty standard stuff. This isn’t new,” Hersh said. “These protocols only reinforce what we were already doing, so the emphasis to our staff is to continue to follow the protocols we have in place.”
Communication is critical
As ambulance organizations continue to provide services, administrators from across the region said communication will remain the most critical component of EMS response. This will include enhanced communication with hospitals, ramping up efforts to educate the public and combating misinformation.
Brancato said his regional dispatchers have all been informed to ask those calling for assistance a set of basic questions that can help first responders determine before arriving whether there may be concerns regarding possible exposure to COVID-19.
These include travel histories for the patient, descriptions of symptoms the patient may be having and other questions to directly assess risk.
“We’re asking callers whether they’ve had flu-like symptoms or fever, symptoms that would indicate the presence of the virus,” he said. “We have also been asking about where they have traveled recently, although as the disease continues to spread that question becomes a lot less important. The virus is everywhere.”
Brancato said dispatchers are also contacting hospitals in advance, sharing the risk assessment and determining the best way to deliver a patient for proper care. In some cases, he said this means a hospital may provide specific instructions or restrictions based on the type or number of cases they have in their emergency room.
Perhaps the most critical component of the effort is relaying proper information and dispelling a growing amount of misinformation available online.
One problem area has been Facebook, he said, and it has led to people expressing irrational concerns or on a few occasions, seeking emergency assistance when not necessary.
Brancato said those with questions should seek answers only from the lead agencies.
Information on COVID-19 is available through both the Rhode Island Department of Health and CDC websites, he said.
“There is a lot of false information in some of these social media posts,” Brancato said. “Readers should focus only on those two primary sources and follow the directions of their first responders.”
Call your doctor first
Although some demographics are at higher risk for complications including the elderly, many will not suffer any life-threatening symptoms. First responders are asking that local residents who do not have an emergency avoid calling 911 as an influx of calls could tax the emergency response system.
Brancato, Richards, Hersh and Kettle all had the exact same advice for those concerned they may have contracted the virus: contact your doctor or primary care physician first.
“For most people, this won’t kill them. If there is no emergency, please call your doctor,” Brancato said. “Panic-driven use of 911 only serves to jeopardize those who have critical, life-threatening emergencies.”
Rhode Island residents who are concerned that they may have been exposed to the virus are also encouraged to use the state’s virus hotline.
The hotline is available 24 hours per day and is staffed with health care professionals for those with questions about the coronavirus or how to self-quarantine. The hotline is available at 401-222-8022.
For more information on COVID-19, including the latest data, visit https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/index.html.