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More work, fewer hands: How COVID-19 is affecting rural ambulance services

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SPRING GREEN (WKOW) -- Walk into the garage that houses the fire trucks and ambulances here, the first things you'll see to your left are disposable gowns set up on a rack, a small mountain of disposable masks on a table, and solution for a fogging machine on the floor. These are now the new tools for EMS crews across the United States.

"It lengthens the process when we go out on calls because we have extra cleaning to do and extra prep to do, putting everything on when we're on our way to a call," said Spring Green Ambulance Chief Derek Miller. "It can slow us down just a little and, of course, we don't like that either."

Miller said the extended cleaning is just one of the challenges for first responders in this town of fewer than 2,000 people. The EMS crew is comprised entirely of volunteers. Miller said many of those volunteers were older, putting them at higher risk of a severe COVID-19 infection.

"We've had a few people this year that served as EMS for many years, they decided for them now was the right time to retire and to not renew their license," Miller said. "And that's entirely understandable and appropriate."

The extra cleaning with, in some cases, fewer people is a challenge for rural ambulance services across the state. The Kaukauna Fire Chief posted last week the enhanced protocols were delaying response times, particularly after transporting COVID-19 patients.

"This is leading to some delayed responses as well as times that we have no units or personnel available to respond to the next emergency," the post read.

Miller said Spring Green was following Dane County's guidance for EMS safety. In some cases, that means pulling over to perform a procedure involving a CPAP machine or a Nebulizer; Miller said those tools can cause a patient to aerosolize particles, one of the primary ways the coronavirus spreads.

"Our protocol tells us right now that if we need to do that, we should pull over, pull the patient cot back out of the ambulance, and administer the procedure and put them back in and go," Miller said.

Miller noted the crews have gotten a routine down eight months into the pandemic. He said the affects on response times in Spring Green had become minimal.

Still, with less personnel and most of the crew having full-time jobs outside of their EMS duties, Miller said fatigue was real. The work showed no signs of slowing either; the EMS/Fire crews oversee the weekly drive-in COVID-19 testing every Monday.

"We keep going, we keep digging in," he said. "I think it's one of those things where when we finally get past this, when we're finally done and vaccines are distributed, whatever else has to happen, I think everyone is gonna need a really good break."

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