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Kentucky EMS Responders See Call Volume Decline, Prepare For Surge

Despite the onset of the coronavirus in Kentucky, emergency calls actually decreased about 20% in March over the same period last year. That’s according to the Kentucky Board of Emergency Medical Services, which oversees more than 220 ground and air ambulance services in the state.

Deputy Director Chuck O’Neal says he believes that decrease is a sign that Kentuckians are following the recommendations of health professionals. It also provides extra capacity should call volume increase, he said.

“It’s because folks are staying, home, they’re social distancing and they’re trying to stay out of the hospitals," O'Neal said.

Kentucky has about 14,000 emergency medical responders working the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic.

EMS workers face a significant challenge in the field: They are looking for signs and symptoms of a virus that can hide among people who appear healthy. Sometimes patients do not show any symptoms for COVID-19.

One EMT tested positive after responding to a 911 call about a person who had fallen.

“And when they arrived on scene the patient didn’t exhibit any of the normal symptoms of COVID-19, they were simply a carrier," O'Neal said. "But that patient in about five days was deceased and we aren’t sure if that was because of COVID-19 or subsequent medical issues.”

So far 10 EMS professionals have tested positive in Kentucky and 41 are under quarantine, O'Neal said.

And like everywhere else around the country, Kentucky’s EMS responders are dealing with a shortage of personal protective equipment, or PPE. Mike Poynter, the executive director of the Board of Emergency Medical Services, says that shortage is one of the greatest challenges they are facing.

“It’s so important to have proper personal protective equipment for our first responders," he said. "If you think about it, if we don’t protect ourselves, we become part of the problem.”

Poynter says the EMS Board is having daily calls with state health professionals, and they’re working on ways to expand their workforce to prepare for a possible surge in cases.

One way to do that would be through an executive order allowing retired workers to come back to work. There are about 9,000 people whose licenses have expired over the last 10 or 15 years who could be eligible, he said.

“I’ve received personally probably five to 10 calls from folks," Poynter said. "That just amazes me. That tells you the caliber of people that work and are involved in EMS.”

Ryan Van Velzer is WFPL's Energy and Environment Reporter. Email Ryan at rvanvelzer@lpm.org.