Support Your Local First Responder: Mask Up!

IEMS photo

by Thomas P. Healy

CDC graphic

May 17–23 is the 46th annual Emergency Medical Services (EMS) Week, organized by the National Association of EMTs and the American College of Emergency Physicians. EMS Week brings together local communities and medical personnel to honor the dedication of those who provide the day-to-day lifesaving services of medicine’s “front line.”

Indianapolis Emergency Medical Services (IEMS) responds to more than 110,000 calls for service each year. As of May 16, these frontline medical and public safety professionals have responded to more than 38,500 calls.

“Our folks move!” said IEMS chief Dr. Dan O’Donnell. “Our busiest trucks are doing 12 to 15 runs in a 12-hour shift.” Even relatively low run numbers can be six to eight per shift.

According to Brian Van Bokkelen, IEMS media relations and public affairs manager, IEMS staff have treated and transported more than 1,400 patients who reported flu-like symptoms since March 1. He said EMTs and paramedics have been in contact with and transported more than 730 patients who were later confirmed COVID-19 positive, yet only eight IEMS providers have tested positive for COVID-19.

O’Donnell said the secret to the agency’s success in keeping infection rates low is careful attention to safety protocols by the more than 350 emergency medical technicians and paramedics in the IEMS workforce. “We could not have been as successful without buy-in from our paramedics and EMTs,” he said.

“Our logistics chief Kevin Gona was prepared and our providers bought into it from day one,” he said. IEMS issued personal protective equipment (PPE) to all workers, including a reusable P100 mask. “It’s a more durable mask than the N95 mask. We can replace cartridges and not whole masks,” O’Donnell said.

On April 3, IEMS first responders began following upgraded status protocols for emergency medical responses to help combat the COVID-19 pandemic. O’Donnell said these protocols will remain in place until further notice. “We’ll keep a close eye on it and look out for our providers,” he said.

Indianapolis EMS Upgrades Protocols for COVID-19 Related Emergency Responses

Respiratory protection is already standard operating procedure for flu cases, so O’Donnell said it was easy to establish a judicial use policy that left it up to individual provider discretion. “We told them, ‘If you don’t want to put it on, feel free, but let’s put it on for a suspected COVID patient.’ We reiterated that when it came to contact tracing and they realized we were looking out for them.”

He said than when a COVID patient has been confirmed, his team goes back and looks at what PPE providers were using. “The majority of the time they were using the right stuff but if they got caught off guard, they had to be quarantined.” He estimated that between five and 10 staff have had to be quarantined thus far.

The public has also done its part. “We asked for them to give us fair warning,” he said. That means letting the 911 dispatcher know about any flu-like issues the caller, or any family member, may be experiencing and also, if possible, to meet providers at the front door.

“People were looking out for us,” he said. “They’ve been supportive in general. Overall we’ve not had people fight us when we ask them to put a mask on.” O’Donnell noted that mask use is now the standard. “We mask all patients—whether flu or overdose run,” he said.

“Some people disagree on masks,” O’Donnell said. “This virus is strong and can live on surfaces for a while, but if you cover your face and if the medical folks have the right PPE, it can prevent transmission.”

While many are calling frontline workers heroes for doing their jobs during the public health emergency, O’Donnell suggested a simple way to show support. “We appreciate the jets flying overhead and the meals, but if we ask you to put on a mask, if you do that, that’s best.”

IEMS is a partnership between the City of Indianapolis, Indiana University School of Medicine, and Health and Hospital Corporation of Marion County, with Eskenazi Health as the supervising health system.

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