EMS grappling with increasing calls, longer transports, amid COVID surge

JOPLIN, Mo. – They’re the people you see first on what is very possibly the worst day of your life. And more and more people are seeing them because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Mercy Paramedic Rachel Cummings and her crew are seeing more calls for covid patients, or suspected covid patients, than anything else right now.

“This is our second for the day, and they’ve both been out of county calls,” says Cummings.

And if their day is anything like what they’re been seeing, they’re far from done. So putting on two masks, a plastic gown, a face shield, and a gloves has become common practice, even in the hot summer months.

“There’s no airflow anywhere,” says Cummings. “Everything is just so warm and sweaty.”

The high call volume spreads from here all the way to Springfield, Missouri.

“They’re working extra shifts, many times their shifts are extended, and so it is definitely a stressful time,” says Bob Patterson, Executive Director of Mercy EMS.

Patterson is based in Springfield and says that the call volumes in the Springfield region are so high that they had to request help from the state with long-distance transports to keep up. Taking patients longer distances to hospitals with open beds is becoming more and more common.

“Those EMS strike teams have been incredibly beneficial. They’ve run about 90 long-distance transports for us in the last five days,” explains Patterson.

Across the state line, Crawford County EMS isn’t seeing its call volumes explode to the same extent. But those long-distance transports are being more and more common, something that’s exacerbating a pre-existing issue. A lack of EMS staff.

“The round trip on a Kansas City run is six hours. That’s six hours out of the county that the ambulance is not there to provide emergency calls,” explains Dr. Timoth Stebbins, Crawford County EMS Director. “So all of these communities are suffering from the same problem. You have a set number of ambulances you can run in a day. When you’re taking an ambulance out of district for hours, it creates a challenge.”

Dr. Stebbins explains that there is a solution to the problem though, at least in the short term: vaccination.

“If we didn’t have the COVID pandemic, this is much less of an issue,” says Stebbins. “The pandemic is all of our responsibility. We all have a responsibility and a personal responsibility to help our medical communities and communities overall through that. We need everyone to step up with the personal responsibility, either through vaccination or through mitigation to minimize the spread of this disease so that we can take care of those who need it.”

“Everybody has their own reason to not get vaccinated,” says Cummings. “But a sore arm for two days is much better than burying your wife. It’s not worth that.”

Dr. Stebbins says Crawford County EMS usually runs between 4200 and 4600 calls a year. This year, they are on track to hit the higher end of that range.