WRAL Investigates

EMS crews risk COVID-19 to save lives

Posted January 28, 2021 5:30 p.m. EST
Updated January 28, 2021 6:39 p.m. EST

— Usually, when a business or government agency reports a positive coronavirus test or an exposure to COVID-19, the whole place shuts down.

But for Durham County EMS, many staffers are exposed to the virus every single day. It is part of the job, and they keep on working.

"Emotionally to our folks, it’s a stress because you’re worried about yourself. You’re worried about protecting your patient that you’re going to see. You’re worried about taking it home to your family," said Jim Groves, director of the county's Office of Emergency Services.

Durham County EMS ambulances transport an average of 15 to 17 people a day who either have been infected by or exposed to the virus, Groves said.

Since the pandemic began last March, Durham County paramedics and EMTs have been dispatched more than 5,500 times for potential coronavirus patients – about 10 percent of overall call volume, he said. About 800 of those patients were later confirmed as positive virus cases.

"As a team, as an EMS team, every single day out there, every day we do [confront it]," he said. "I think it has been the most difficult time in our careers."

Nine members of the 152-person Durham County EMS staff have contracted the virus, although Groves said it's difficult to say whether any of the infections were job-related.

Paramedic Jenna Bajwa, who contracted the virus last July, said she suspects she caught it on the job.

"It was not fun, for sure," the 29-year-old Bajwa said. "Safe to say, I’m a healthy, young person. I was able to get through it fine. But I can see how, if you’re not, if you have underlying conditions, if you’re not as healthy and young, I can see how it would be a lot different – and I’m seeing that in patients as well."

She said she sees at least one patient with the virus each day, and they're getting sicker as the pandemic goes along.

"There was definitely a turning point to where we would go to houses that had COVID-positive patients and they were fine. But now, I feel like a lot of the COVID patients we’re going to are very sick individuals," she said. "We take a lot of people that don’t make it out of the hospital with COVID."

Other Triangle-area EMS agencies also report routinely transporting infected patients.

Wake County EMS has responded to more than 14,000 calls with potentially infected people since last April, Assistant Chief Jeff Hammerstein said. In the past two weeks alone, 182 patients transported by EMS ambulances later tested positive for coronavirus, he said.

Orange County EMS responded to more than 2,300 calls since last March with potentially infected people and transported 177 who tested positive for the virus, county spokesman Todd McGee said.

Six EMS workers in Orange County have tested positive for coronavirus in the last 10 months, McGee said. Wake County doesn't track the number of infected paramedics, Hammerstein said.

Bajwa said her illness and the daily threat of more exposure, including the difficulty of wearing protective gear throughout each shift and decontaminating equipment after each run, doesn't discourage her from doing her job.

"I get so much satisfaction out of going to work every day. It’s so rewarding," she said. "The job is dangerous as it is sometimes in a different way, but this is kind of an unseen thing that you have to be aware of at all times."

Groves and Bajwa said the distribution of vaccines to staff and the public gives them hope that the daily threat will soon diminish.

"I believe that there was a great sense of relief," Grove said of EMS staff who got vaccinated. "We’ll have a better sense of relief once our families are protected as well."

"We were all super-thankful that we were some of the first people to receive it," Bajwa said. "It took away a little bit of that anxiety."

Even with the threat of exposure to the virus, they still want people to call 911 if they need help.

"It’s our job. We’re happy to be there," Bajwa said.

"Durham County EMS is always going to respond," Groves said. "Our business is serving our community."

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