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Staring down the surge: Frontline medical workers on the pandemic

Louisville EMS paramedic Don Scheer wasn’t halfway through his shift when he helped restart a man’s heart in an ambulance en route to University of Louisville Hospital. 

It was an overdose. 

“Today hasn’t been too bad of a day which means I probably just ruined that,” Scheer said after they arrived at the hospital and the patient was taken inside. “We just had a 35-year old cardiac arrest from a drug overdose. We see a lot of those calls.”

Scheer’s standing beside a pile of multicolored spine boards, the kind paramedics use to transport patients. Some of them are used to carry people overdosing on drugs, some are for victims of violent crime, and some are for people struggling to breathe.

The Ohio Valley has been hard hit by the latest surge in COVID-19, and that’s impacting all aspects of the health care system. First responders across Kentucky and Ohio have dealt with staffing and bed shortages all while managing a previously unknown virus.  

Scheer said he’ll ask the COVID patients he’s transporting if they're vaccinated. If they say no, he’ll ask if they’re ready to get the shot now that they’re headed to the hospital. 

“And they all say, ‘I’m getting it right now, I’m getting it here while I’m in this hospital,’ because they realize just how bad the virus itself is,” he said. 

Medical first responders have been on the frontlines of the resurgence of COVID-19 in the Ohio Valley. The delta variant has fueled the rise, and paramedics are seeing the same phenomena across the region: young unvaccinated patients who need emergency care.

Last year, Louisville EMS paramedic William Kone said he took call after call from nursing homes asking him to bring elderly COVID patients to the hospital. In the last month, he’s picked up COVID patients ages 2 to 78, but most of them are between 30 and 60 years old, he said. 

“They were older last year. You’d get them from the nursing homes more than you got them from anyplace else,” Kone said. “Now we’re getting them from out on the street everywhere and most of them aren’t vaccinated.”

Last year, 911 call volumes were down across the region. This year, they’re back up, and in rural areas, they’re often even higher than pre-pandemic levels. 

Shannon Gollnick, vice president of EMS Services for Medcare Ambulance, says that in his service area around Columbus, Ohio, he’s seen call volume increase 15 to 20%. Many rural hospitals in the Ohio Valley have been overwhelmed with COVID-19 cases, causing staffing and bed shortages. 

“While we're seeing these patients being sicker, they're in the hospital for longer and we’re seeing more of them and the challenge we’re having is it’s taxing the entire health care system,” Gollnick said.

For Livingston County EMS director Rick Driskill out in Western Kentucky, that means ambulances are having to transport patients farther. 

“And they are running into problems getting local placement of the long care [ventilator] patients, and we’re having to take them to St. Louis or Nashville or even farther than Nashville.”

Paramedics will tell you, the burnout is real. There’s the generally low pay, the stressful and often traumatic working conditions, and the threat of catching the virus fueling a global pandemic. 

Back at the ambulance bay in Louisville, Scheer recalled his experience catching COVID. It was early in the pandemic during the lockdown. He wasn’t ever out in public so he figures the only place he could have caught it was at work. 

“And it was rough, it’s not something I would wish on anyone. Then to have pneumonia on top of it, I thought I was going to die. As a matter of fact, several people thought so. So yea it was pretty bad,” Scheer said. 

Scheer’s doing better now, though he’s still recovering. That was early on in the pandemic, when there were still so many unknowns about the virus. Medical first responders have learned a lot since those early days. 

“Now we have a really good system in place, a good system of PPE that's been built up now that we have our stock, so to speak. It’s made it a lot easier but we still run two to three COVID calls per shift,” he said.

New cases of COVID-19 appear to be slowing across the region, but there’s still no clear end in sight. For paramedics like Scheer, helping COVID patients is now just part of the routine.


Ryan Van Velzer is the Kentucky Public Radio Managing Editor. Email Ryan at rvanvelzer@lpm.org.

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