The COVID-19 pandemic is affecting every facet of peoples’ lives in the world, the nation and right here at home. As it spreads, it affects the operational readiness and procedures needed to cope with it and even survive it. Besides the impact on hospitals and their staffs, one of the things many people in the national press have observed in hard-hit areas is the frequency of hearing sirens in the streets. Whether they are from ambulances or fire trucks, those reports imply an increase in emergency calls. That raises questions about the impact of the coronavirus on the emergency response services in Northeast Houston.
While there has been an impact on policy and training to comply with Centers for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines and when to use personal protective equipment (PPE), area fire departments report no appreciable impact in the overall number of emergency medical service (EMS) calls.
The policy by all EMS providers is to wear and use PPE on every call made. In the past, the equipment was always carried but only used in cases where there was a specific reason or report indicating a clear and present danger. Now it is worn and used on every call by all EMS personnel when they enter a building to handle an emergency. The equipment consists of protective gowns, medical/surgical masks (M95s), gloves and protective face and eye gear.
“Don’t be worried if we are wearing a mask when we arrive, that’s the way it is now,” said Humble City Fire Chief David Langenberg.
Mike Mulligan of the Volunteer Atascocita Fire Department pointed out that the 911 Emergency Response System has adjusted the screening questions used on all emergency calls. This is to provide more specific information regarding possible COVID-19 risk to the EMS people actually responding to the calls.
As a result of the policy adjustments, training on when to use the PPE has occurred along with additional training for post-call decontamination of all equipment used.
“We added training for decontamination of the ambulances as well as revised PPE training. We also held training for aerosolizing procedures, such as intubation,” said Abby Lee of the Harris County Emergency Corps. The corps provides EMS service to the Eastex Fire Department service area. Eastex Fire Chief Brian Harris confirmed the Eastex fire trucks are also in compliance when using PPE as required by CDC guidelines.
All three area fire departments and the corps report they have enough PPE for both current needs and possible increases in need in the future. The City of Houston Fire Department did not respond to inquiries by the time of this writing
While the fire chiefs indicated there has been no appreciable change in overall EMS service-call volume in the Northeast Houston area, Mulligan made an observation that even though the total number of calls was not rising, the “mix” within those calls, at least in Atascocita, seemed to fluctuate as the shelter-in -place requirements took effect.
“The volume is about the same but we have not seen as many accidents. We haven’t seen as many falls. Falls are No. 1 and they are now returning to normal. So far we have been lucky,” he said.