When someone calls for an ambulance on the South Fork, a network of mostly volunteers springs into action to get them the medical help they need as fast as possible.
In the days of the coronavirus pandemic, that call to duty has introduced new logistical hurdles, risks and stresses like never before.
Phillip Cammann has been an EMT and paramedic for the Bridgehampton Fire Department and the Southampton Volunteer Ambulance for 40 years, and is the chairman of the Regional Emergency Medical Advisory Council, which oversees all of the ambulance companies in Suffolk County.
He spoke with The Express News Group this week about what it is like for the ambulance company volunteers responding to calls with the specter of coronavirus hanging over everything.
Q. How many ambulances are there working on the South Fork?
There are 12 ambulance agencies between Westhampton and Montauk, either associated with a fire department, like Bridgehampton, or stand alone, like Southampton. There are about 30 ambulances in all.
Right now every agency has a [paid] paramedic on duty, and starting this week, Southampton also has [a paid] EMT on duty. Everyone else is volunteers.
Q. How have ambulance crews adjusted to the coronavirus pandemic?
Going back to the days of ebola, all the agencies were trained in infectious disease control and how to deal with the n95 masks and gowns and sanitizing ambulances.
We are trying to keep our ambulance crews as small as possible — both to protect the crews but also so people don’t get burned out because the call volume has ticked up and the intensity of what we are doing has ticked up.
Q. Are you getting a lot more calls?
The weekly call volume has gone up 50 percent. Trauma calls have gone down, just because with the business closures there’s fewer car accidents and fewer construction accidents.
But the number of ‘I’m sick’ or ‘I don’t feel well’ has gone up a lot because everyone is very worried about any illness now.
Q. What would you say to someone who thinks they need to go to the hospital?
The biggest thing is, and [Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone] and [Governor Andrew Cuomo] have been saying this a lot: If you get a fever and a cough, you should stay home because that is the best place you can be.
If you are having difficulty breathing or chest pains, then you call an ambulance.
If you are not having problems breathing, if you are not having chest pains, stay home, drink plenty of fluids. A hospital is not going to help you.
The person with a minor injury like a broken toe or they cut their finger cooking or something: go to a walk-in clinic. Walk-ins and doctors offices don’t have this surge because everyone is going to the hospital. If you have signs of a urinary tract infection, go to a doctor. It’s healthier for you. You don’t want to go to a hospital right now if you can help it.
Also, getting the [COVID-19] test is not going to help you. It is not going get you different treatment.
Q. What are the symptoms of those who do probably have a bad case of COVID-19?
They present as someone who has had a fever for a week or so and they are very weak and lethargic. In some cases, they are unable to walk.
Q. When an ambulance crew responds to a call, how are you protecting yourselves?
For a typical ambulance response, a surgical mask is adequate. It’s when we get into a more invasive procedure, when there is the potential for aerosolizing bodily fluids that we need a tighter fitting mask. But we don’t have those all that often. That’s more of a hospital setting, which is why the n95s are so important.
If a person isn’t able to walk, and we have to go into a house and carry them out, we have to get gowned up in a much more intensive suiting. The more that we’re in that 6-foot space, the more we need protection so that we … can come back to work tomorrow.
Q. Do you treat calls for people with coronavirus symptoms differently?
We’re treating all our patients the same way. It’s not just do they have coronavirus or do they potentially have it, but also does one of us potentially have it. So the safest way to handle it is to treat everyone the same way. Masks and gloves on all calls. The dispatchers are asking more questions first, and we are interviewing the family and the patient from a distance.
When someone is loaded on a stretcher, they are wrapped in an impervious, disposable sheet for transport to contain any germs. It’s safer for the crew, it’s safer for the hospital staff and it lets us put the ambulance back in service faster.
Q. Have the local ambulance companies been able to get the protective supplies you need?
We’ve been doing very well so far, not only through our vendors, but also through [the Suffolk County Department of Fire, Rescue and Emergency Services]. Fire Rescue has a supply pod set up for the last few weeks that is supplied through the state. We’ve had plenty of surgical masks. The n95 masks have been more of a problem.
Q. Are you losing volunteers because of the coronavirus?
A lot of the agencies are saying that if you are over 65 or 70 or have medical issues, you should back down because people have to be concerned about their family and their health.
At the same time, a lot of those people are drivers, and if done correctly the driver of the ambulance should be isolated. That’s how the ambulances are constructed. So if someone is over 70 an they stay in the ambulance, they should be okay.
Also, with schools and colleges closed, all the summer student [volunteers] are home and are looking for something to do. So where we may have some people who have had to step out because of age or medical issues, we have these young kids who we hadn’t planned on being here.
Q. How is Stony Brook Southampton Hospital handling the onslaught?
The hospital has a fantastic system when we get there. They triage over the radio, the communication lines have been fantastic. They have not turned away a single call for inability to handle the load.
Q. How is the hospital staff holding up?
I’m amazed at how fantastic they are. I may get three or four calls during a 12 hour shift. They are on a call for the entire shift. Wearing masks and gloves and a face shield for an entire shift. They are just fantastic.