Last year’s EMS Week exemplified the 2020 theme: Ready Today. Preparing for Tomorrow.
Most years, San Diego’s American Medical Response (AMR) operation hosts a number of events to celebrate their crews during EMS Week, like barbecues, World CPR Day (a hands-only CPR training campaign) and live raffles for its providers.
“We would also invite community partners to join in the festivities such as the San Diego Padres’
Pad Squad, hold JEMS Facebook live sessions and provide our employees with gifts,” says Claudia Rempel, the department’s operations manager and leader of the planning committee for EMS Week. Crews have also been recognized at city council and county board of supervisors meetings.
Long before the third week of May 2020, it was clear that—just like everything else that year—EMS Week would be much different. EMS personnel had already donned masks, socially distanced and prepared for a barrage of calls. EMS systems across the country found themselves putting their typical EMS Week celebrations on hold—or online. They focused instead on adapting to a completely new set of circumstances that impacted every facet of EMS.
“We had to quickly respond to the pandemic by adjusting to the transport volume by moving units around to meet demand,” Rempel says. “We also created a unique new-hire orientation classroom environment, provided [COVID] screeners to local community partners, implemented enhanced decontamination procedures and continued finding unique ways to recognize our frontline workers while still maintaining social distancing practices.”
When the outbreak worsened, some San Diego AMR staff dispatched to New York, New Jersey, Northern California and Imperial County, says Rempel, so the department postponed EMS Week celebrations until the fall. Even then, the festivities could not be held in person; staff members were honored via social media posts, daily raffles and AMR swag.
Before the AMR crews and others could come to help, New York and New Jersey were bearing the brunt of the first COVID-19 wave in the United States. The annual Fire Department of New York EMS Week poster resembled an ad for a PPE manufacturer, featuring seven clinicians in N95 masks—symbolizing the impact the pandemic had on EMS Week and the profession.
Mark Richards, a part-time paramedic at Holy Name Medical Center in New Jersey’s Bergen County, witnessed that first onslaught of cases.
“The fatigue from being hammered with these calls was just horrible, and I wasn’t even doing it full-time,” says Richards, a retired law enforcement officer. Holy Name was the first hospital in the area to receive a COVID-positive patient, and eventually, Richards says, it became strictly reserved for patients with COVID-19. This was true for most other hospitals in the county—although that designation was hardly needed, as few people without COVID-19 even sought medical care.
People were terrified of catching COVID-19 in emergency departments, so the only ones calling 9-1-1 were in true critical condition, “literally taking their last breath to call for help,” says Richards. “Nobody came to the hospital—none of the drunks, none of the psychs, none of the broken arms. No MIs. It just stopped.” While call volumes initially decreased, they soon skyrocketed along with the number of positive cases.
As Bergen County hospitals became more overwhelmed, they added additional ICUs to accommodate the influx of patients. Holy Name gave paramedics the option to either work in the street or with code teams in the hospital. Richards temporarily chose the latter. In the hospital, calls for rapid responses and codes came nearly every 15 minutes, and teams stepped into each room with trepidation, wondering if their PPE would be sufficient to protect them from the novel virus.
“I’ve been in EMS for almost 40 years and I have never encountered anything like this,” he says, adding, “I hope I never do [again].”
In Philadelphia each year, EMS Week commences with a proclamation from the mayor followed by a ceremony at Fireman’s Hall Museum to celebrate the EMS Provider of the Year. Hospitals and fire stations are visited by Fire Commissioner Adam Thiel, who thanks them in person for their service. Philadelphia Fire Department’s daily social media posts highlight EMS providers. In 2020, the ceremony had to be postponed, and the department announced the Provider of the Year recipient—paramedic Captain April Smallwood—online.
During EMS Week, instead of celebrations, Com-missioner Thiel attended daily briefings along with other top city officials. They also established a task force for tracking and monitoring the test results and quarantine periods of department members ex-posed to COVID-19. Those daily briefings continued throughout 2020 and into this year.
Like in New Jersey, non-COVID-19 calls decreased in Philadelphia, as people stayed away from ambulances and emergency rooms in the hopes of avoiding COVID. During EMS Week 2020, Philadelphia Fire Department crews were responding to 630 to 700 calls each day—enough to stay busy, but significantly less than a typical day prior to the pandemic. That was hardly a respite, though, as the department also faced staff shortages due to members testing positive for the virus or quarantining after exposures. With the roll-out of vaccines and other measures, Thiel is hopeful that this year’s EMS Week can look more like those prior to 2020.
“In 2021, I hope it will be safe to recognize and honor our EMS providers in person for their incredible, selfless work, not only during the pandemic, but every day across our city,” he says.
Rempel agrees, saying that if it’s safe to do so in 2021, she hopes her agency can celebrate EMS Week together and continue to offer free compression-only CPR training to San Diego County residents.
“Our management team misses being able to recognize our frontline employees in person and serving them at our annual EMS Week breakfast and barbeque,” she says. “We will also likely look at new ways to celebrate EMS Week and recognize our hard-working employees.”
Whatever 2021 looks like, one thing is clear: EMS Week 2020 was like none other in the nearly five decades since its inception. And while most of us were ready to put 2020 behind us and look forward to a better 2021, the dedication of EMS professionals caring for their communities during the third week of May demonstrated exactly why we celebrate them every year.