Climbing COVID-19 numbers coupled with a limited intensive care unit (ICU) capacity at area hospitals, has taken a mental and physical toll on emergency medical (EMS) workers, said Captain Joe Enterline.
The psychological stress comes, partly, from the fear of contracting the virus on the job and bringing it home, the paramedic said.
“Over the past year there’s been a lot of mental stress related to the EMS side of the pandemic,” Enterline told The Epoch Times. “You’re running on this increased load of COVID patients and now you’re taking that home to your families, and are unknown of your exposure level.”
He said he’s been quarantined twice, due to what they consider to be a high-risk impact.
“And that’s the great unknown. I have two young children and a wife, so what am I taking home as I go daily on calls?” Enterline said. “We take the precautions necessary, but there’s still that heightened risk or that possibility. So the greater unknown is how will it affect me and how it will affect my family.”
Enterline, based at the OCFA’s Station 61 in Buena Park, said he struggles with the guilt he would feel if he inadvertently exposed others to the virus.
“My wife is a schoolteacher, so there’s a possibility that now we’re affecting at a greater level,” he said. “I also have an elderly grandma in her 90s. If I get exposed, and I don’t know that I have [COVID], even though I’m wearing a mask around her and taking the most precautions, that would be catastrophic for me to know that I gave it to someone else or someone in the public.”
The OCFA is taken extensive precautions to keep its crews safe. Chief Brian Fennessy previously told The Epoch Times that the agency’s quick response to the pandemic last March allowed it to secure the personal protective equipment first responders would need.
It also adopted new precautions to keep its firefighters safe. During their 48-hour shifts, firefighters are expected to maintain six feet of distance from colleagues and wear masks both at the station and while riding in firetrucks.
While there has been a surplus of equipment to help keep them safe, thanks to OCFA, Enterline said there’s been a big decrease in manpower.
“[As far as] manpower, we are on a severe drawdown. … We have had to have people off constantly, with some who are COVID-positive, some with high-risk exposures,” he said. “So, our drawdown over the past really three to four months has increased drastically.”
To limit exposure while on the job, firefighters and EMS workers wear N95 masks, safety goggles that are 100 percent sealed, as well as a plastic gown provided by the OCFA. They also automatically place masks on patients and find out as much information as possible about COVID exposure from the patient as possible in an attempt to determine the patient’s risk.
After concluding a call, crews completely sanitize and decontaminate all equipment with a spray and wipe down, and return to the fire station to decontaminate their equipment, personnel, boots, and the station itself.
Enterline said that COVID also added to the stress of fighting multiple wildfires in the past few months.
“When we’re not on the front line of the wildfire, base camp was changed 100 percent,” Enterline said.
“Social distancing, temperatures taken every day, maintaining your distance, cleaning and monitoring your equipment, sanitizing your equipment, making sure your laundry was done every day. Those were steps that normally you don’t need to take within base camp when you’re under an already stressful situation and you’re already fatigued [due to the wildfires].”
He noted that despite the mental health issues and fatigue that results from being a firefighter during the pandemic, the OCFA has done an excellent job of educating personnel and taking care of everyone on a personal level.
Firefighters are also trained for highly stressful events; before embarking on their first shift, they participate in 16-week training sessions.
An Unforgettable Experience
Throughout the past year, there are some memories that have stuck with Enterline.
“One of the biggest memories is when you go into a house and everybody is sick or a care facility where everybody has [COVID], and the staff is so overwhelmed they don’t know what to do,” he said. “That’s our job to calm them, to help them get their situation under control, whether we need to get county EMS involved or another unit out there to help mitigate the situation.”
Enterline said that it’s important for the public to educate themselves as much as possible, and to use precautions outlined by the CDC to help break the cycle of the virus.
He added that residents should try to seek help from personal physicians prior to calling 911 if it’s a non-emergency issue because a doctor can do a lot more for them before emergency services are used.
“But if they feel that 911 needs to be utilized, that’s why we’re here, that’s what we do,” he said. “We’ll come out and give those people the utmost respect, treat them like they’re one of our own, and make sure that they get the proper care.”