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VIDEO: Honolulu Emergency Medical Services chief says COVID-19 has changed the way EMS works

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                                Honolulu Emergency Medical Services Jim Ireland, paramedic Sunny Fitzgerald and Hawaii Chief Election Officer Scott Nago.

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    Honolulu Emergency Medical Services Jim Ireland, paramedic Sunny Fitzgerald and Hawaii Chief Election Officer Scott Nago.

Honolulu Emergency Medical Services chief Dr. Jim Ireland said his agency is on the front lines of battling the coronavirus, and so far, has been able to keep the virus largely out of its ranks, despite interacting with hundreds, and possibly thousands, of people carrying the disease.

“We have transported over 500 patients with known COVID-19 infections, and probably double or triple that that we didn’t know had COVID-19. Fortunately, knock on wood, we’ve only had one paramedic infected with COVID019, out of over 500 transports,” Ireland said this morning on Spotlight Hawaii.

“Our entire response has changed,” added paramedic Sunny Fitzgerald,

She explained that when she first joined EMS five years ago, paramedics and EMTs would typically only wear gloves, but now they must treat every patient as if he or she has COVID-19.

“We’re wearing our N95s, our eye protection, face shields, and gowns as necessary,” she said.

All of that gear makes their already tough job even harder, as it can be difficult to put people at ease and sometimes, even to communicate.

“Say we go to a pediatric call or a kid. We come in with our gowns on, our masks on, goggles, we look very intimidating. We look like Ghostbusters coming into your home,” she said.

Fitzgerald continued, “The masks we’re wearing and the P100s, our respirators, it’s very hard to communicate. It muffles our voices, a lot of times we’re having to yell, when typically we wouldn’t be yelling at our patients. So it definitely changes the way we do things. Unfortunately it changes the interpersonal relationships that we have.”

The added personal protective equipment has also added significant cost to an agency already low on resources before the pandemic.

Ireland says PPE and equipment used to sanitize the ambulances between calls has largely been paid for with CARES Act funding. That money will run out at the end of December, but he says they have stockpiled additional equipment to last through the beginning of 2021.

The added safety protocols also add time to each call, more on the back end because the rigs have to be thoroughly decontaminated, which keeps them off the road for the time it takes to clean them. Without less people driving, going out to bars, and fewer tourists, EMS’ call volume has decreased 10-20%, but Ireland said he is concerned that as Oahu opens up, an increase in call volume combined with the safety protocols could stress the system.

“We’re actually gonna staff an extra 8 hour ambulance for the peak of day for the month of November, to try to mitigate some of that stress on the system, so that we don’t delay our care, in taking care of our patients,” he said.

Fitzgerald said that despite the added stress, she and her colleagues are committed to their work.

“I think I can speak for most people in our department when I say that we do this job because we love helping people and we love helping out community,” she said.

Ireland said they continue to recruit for new paramedics, and encourages any one interested to call Kapiolani Community College to learn about the EMS training program.

“It’s a great job, it’s a great career. The city has great benefits and it’s very, very rewarding. We have a great team. Our paramedics, EMTs and dispatches are so good,” he said.

“It is a scary time to get into health care because of COVID, but at the same time, we’ve lost a lot of other jobs, hopefully temporarily. And health care is oftentimes a safe place to work in the sense of job security when the economy is otherwise unstable.”

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Watch via the video above or on our Facebook page.


Spotlight Hawaii, which shines a light on issues affecting Hawaii, airs live 10:30 a.m. every Monday, Wednesday and Friday on the Honolulu Star-Advertiser’s Facebook page. Join Ryan Kalei Tsuji and Yunji de Nies this month for a conversation with guests. Click here to watch previous conversations.


Click here to see our full coverage of the coronavirus outbreak. Submit your coronavirus news tip.

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