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1st responders brace for coronavirus spread amid equipment, staffing concerns

Despite potential obstacles, EMS officials express confidence in their abilities

Emergency medical personnel and first responders across the country are in the midst of a major mobilization in preparation for the spread of the novel coronavirus, amid ongoing concerns over potential shortages in staff and protective equipment, officials told ABC News.

"I think our biggest concern, of course, is that they have appropriate personal protective equipment and that they go into every emergency call prepared for this type of situation," said Leslee Stein-Spencer, a program manager for the National Association of State EMS Officials (NASEMSO).

Last month, at least three first responders were forced to self-quarantine for 14 days in Rocklin, California, after responding to a call of a person who later tested positive for the coronavirus.

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In interviews with multiple EMS departments across the country, nearly all told ABC News that that when they get a call -- immediately after learning the nature of the emergency -- the dispatchers will ask the individual of any symptoms they may be experiencing or travel history that may be relevant to the coronavirus.

"We have become much more sensitive to just about anybody with a report of fever and any sort of respiratory aliment. At least until we can assess them," James Hooley, Boston’s Chief of EMS told ABC News. Massachusetts has already 150 plus cases confirmed in the state.

So far, Hooley said that they have had a few transports that have resulted in presumptive positive cases of COVID-19. When one is identified, it begins a process of working with the Boston Public Health Department to figure out who responded to the call and what precautions they took.

Jasper Brown, the chief of staff for the Austin-Travis County, Texas, Emergency Medical Services Department, also told ABC News that in some cases -- to protect first responders -- they are prepared to use Tyvek protective suits and heavier respirators.

Departments also alert the hospital if they are bringing a patient who could possibly have COVID-19.

In Louisiana's East Baton Rouge Parish, interim EMS administrator Chad Guillot said there is a cleaning crew on standby in case of any exposure to coronavirus.

"They can come in and do some additional disinfecting of the trucks ... from top to bottom," Guillot told ABC News. "We would, then make sure that all the (protective equipment) was worn correctly. If there is any kind of concern that somebody may have had an exposure, we are prepared to quarantine people."

Another precaution East Baton Rouge Parish and other U.S. departments are taking, is limiting the number of first responders who respond to a call.

"We have to look at implementing surge plans where we might have to -- our providers might have to change our staffing patterns, or their transports or their dispatch callers that might not get an ambulance if you're not in a critical situation," Stein-Spencer said. "So we are looking and our providers are looking at implementing various processes in order to meet the demands of the public."

Late last week, NASEMSO, which serves as a conduit for state, local and federal emergency officials, approved a compact between 18 different states. The compact paved the way for EMS officials to send licensed personnel across state lines in the event staffing shortages overwhelm certain communities.

Stein-Spencer also pointed to recently updated guidance issued by CDC to first responders that said face masks are an acceptable alternative to the more advanced N-95 respirators until the supply chain for the N-95s restabilizes.

Despite the potential obstacles, EMS officials expressed confidence in their ability to handle any potential surge of cases that might happen.

"Across the country, first responders are trained to deal with, infectious diseases and hazmat situations," Guillot said. "This is nothing new or out of the ordinary as far as what we're having to face. And we have the equipment, we are all trained on the equipment and there should be some level of comfort with using the equipment by the people who are in the EMS field.

In Austin, Texas, Brown said that despite a stockpile of supplies, first responders have seen some "disruption in our supply chain but because of our advanced planning, we've been able to maintain levels that we believe will be necessary to get us through this."

EMS departments stressed they are prepared and ready to tackle the challenge of not only keeping first responders safe, but safely transporting and providing support to the community.

"We're ready, we've been ready. The workforce is a professional workforce," Brown said, "they know they’ve entered their career in EMS, as health care providers, they are health care professionals."

What to know about Coronavirus:

  • How it started and how to protect yourself: Coronavirus explained
  • What to do if you have symptoms: Coronavirus symptoms
  • Tracking the spread in the US and Worldwide: Coronavirus map