Keeping Ambulances Clean In Coronavirus Crisis

Sag Harbor Volunteer Ambulance Corps. President Deborah O'Brien givens a presentation to members of five different local police and ambulance associations on new COVID-19 safety protocols that are being put into place during a meeting at the Sag Harbor Ambulance headquarters on Thursday.

Midway through its March 10 meeting, the Sag Harbor Village Board approved a late addition to its agenda: a request to buy sanitizing equipment for Sag Harbor Volunteer Ambulance Corps vehicles.

The request came just days before the impact of the novel coronavirus would begin to be felt on the East End — and, as luck would have it, at about the same time other emergency services providers across the country were thinking the same thing. The wait time is now four to six weeks for the equipment, which will cost a little more than $17,000.

“They are in very high demand,” said the ambulance corps’ president, Debra O’Brien, of the sanitizing units. “The company tells me they are trying to increase production.”

Sag Harbor will buy its equipment from AeroClave, a Florida-based company that produces portable units equipped with nozzles that spray a disinfectant solution throughout the interior of an ambulance, a police car or other emergency vehicle, or even in a room.

Until the gear arrives, the ambulance corps will continue to clean its ambulances with plenty of disinfectant solution and elbow grease, a process Ms. O’Brien said requires extra work from already busy volunteers and slows turn-around time, because ambulances have to be aired out after each cleaning.

On Friday, the chief of the East Hampton Volunteer Ambulance Association, Lisa Charde, said East Hampton is also planning to buy disinfecting equipment from AeroClave, but with shipments backlogged at least a month, the important question is: “What are you doing now?”

Even though ambulances are being cleaned manually, she said, patients need not fear.

“We have people who are worried, staff members who are worried,” she said. “We know how to do this.”

She said emergency service providers thoroughly clean the ambulances after every run, following regularly updated protocol handed down by New York State and Suffolk County. The vehicles also are cleaned for good measure each evening before the night squad goes on duty.

With a nod to reports that panicky New Yorkers were decamping the city en masse and descending on grocery stores to stock up on supplies, Ms. Charde added, “We may be safer in the ambulance than we would be shopping at IGA right now.”

Members of the Sag Harbor corps were joined by their colleagues in the Bridgehampton Fire Department’s Ambulance Company in a Suffolk County training session on Thursday, March 12. They were updated on the latest information about how to safely care for patients who may be suffering from COVID-19, from what protective clothing to wear during the trip to the hospital to how to more effectively clean their ambulance afterward.

Phil Cammann, the paramedic supervisor for the Southampton Volunteer Ambulance, which serves portions of Southampton outside the village limits, said it, too, will also be receiving disinfecting equipment in the coming weeks. “Not only does it clean but it lays down a microbiological barrier so any germ will die off,” he said. “And it’s nontoxic.”

Like his counterparts, he said the ambulance service’s members have received regular training in how to deal with patients who are suffering from highly infectious diseases like COVID-19.

Going back to 2014 and the Ebola scare, Mr. Cammann said, ambulances typically carry kits with masks, goggles, gowns, and cleaning supplies in the event they encounter a patient with a serious infection. “Before we get into their space, we’ll ask them a series of questions,” he said. “If they respond they don’t have any of those issues then we can respond to them in a normal fashion.”

Ms. Charde said if a call comes in with a patient who has a fever, a cough, and a recent history of travel, emergency responders “will be suited up” before they handle the patient.

Ms. O’Brien urged people to use their better judgment before calling for an ambulance and follow guidance of their doctors or official websites or hotlines before calling, especially at a time like this when providers may soon be overstretched.

“The people who need an ambulance are always the ones walking into the ER,” she said. “Those who don’t need an ambulance are the ones calling for one.”