This year started as just another year in an upward trend of call activity for the Wilton Volunteer Ambulance Corps (WVAC), continuing an uptick of almost 12% compared to five years ago. Wilton’s medical first responders routinely dealt with motor vehicle accidents, falls and illnesses at the senior living facilities in town, domestic cases and non-emergency calls. Shifts were busy.
That was before the first case of COVID-19 hit Wilton’s collective consciousness on March 8 with the announcement that a town resident had tested positive and was undergoing treatment for coronavirus. Now the corps of volunteer EMTs, EMRs and drivers, who all volunteer and donate their time and expertise, is entrenched in its most exhausting and anxiety-laden point in its 44-year history.
Brian McDermott, WVAC EMT and vice president, did note that call volumes are actually down from this time last year. He said, “This is largely in part to the community adhering to state and local officials’ requests to stay home, which takes a lot of the trauma related calls they may normally experience out of the picture,” he said, adding, “People aren’t on the roads, so less motor vehicle accidents. People aren’t out there playing sports, so less sports related injuries, etc.”
As for medical calls, the corps still gets dispatched for general sick calls, but even that has changed. “We are not transporting as many to the hospital because we need to be cognizant of putting people into an environment where they may be more at risk. Where possible we are recommending them follow up with their local doctors if transport to the hospital can be avoided,” McDermott said.
There is an added element for the WVAC members–anxiety.
“I can tell you that every call comes with an extreme level of anxiety for all of our members,” he added.
WVAC contracts with Norwalk Hospital to provide daytime coverage during the week, but its volunteers cover the overnight hours between 6 p.m.-6 a.m. during the week and 24 hours a day on the weekends. During those shifts, a crew composed of a crew chief and a driver (sometimes supplemented by a third attendant) work in conjunction with a Norwalk Hospital paramedic to provide Emergency Medical Service to the town.
The organization has over 60 members, most of whom are emergency medical technicians (EMTs) trained to render care ranging from simple splinting of a broken finger to lifesaving emergency defibrillation using an Automatic External Defibrillator (AED). Included in its ranks right now are several students home from college due to their campuses being shut down, and McDermott said all are putting in maximum effort.
There are high school members too who are still part of the corps. “We contacted all 18 and under members’ parents and asked for their authorization to allow their kids to continue to do shifts under these circumstances. [All but three] have continued to allow their students to work,” McDermott said.
The corps is led by president John Miscioscia, who McDermott said “…has been so impressive as to how he has handled this pandemic on behalf of WVAC, going 100mph, 100% of the time. He has been an absolute rock star and he has done this all as a volunteer.”
A Change in Procedure
Especially during this heightened time of uncertainty and fear of virus transmission, volunteer EMTs, EMRs, and drivers often go into calls not knowing what they will find and therefore need to be protected for every call now and for the foreseeable future.
“For example, just because we get dispatched to a call for a fall, or even a motor vehicle accident, we have no idea if that patient may be positive for COVID-19,” McDermott explained. All precautions must be taken, so “every call we go on we must wear gloves, an N-95 [mask], and eye protection. If the patient is suspected COVID-19 positive, we also put on our gowns. Running three-man crews and averaging four calls per day, this personal protection equipment (PPE) goes quickly.”
Extra precautions have impacted how the calls are orchestrated and staffed.
“Calls with suspected or confirmed COVID-19 patients have been interesting because normally, both fire and police usually respond with us as they are also either EMTs or EMRs and can assist with patient care. However, in this new environment, because the goal is to limit the amount of people that come into contact with patients, depending on the nature of the call, our volunteer crews are the ones going in on their own while the paid fire and police often will wait outside.”
He continued, “It makes sense, as we are the ones who will be providing care and transporting them, but if ever there was a time for both the town of Wilton and the community to show their appreciation for our amazing members, it’s now.”
More PPE and Other Essentials Needed
As of this writing, WVAC currently has sufficient supplies of non-latex gloves for the next few weeks, largely in part due to a very generous community who have been dropping off donations at WVAC headquarters. In addition, goggles can be cleaned and sanitized.
It’s important to note that Wilton and the rest of the area has only yet experienced the front end of this pandemic curve, and the expectation is that it will be months, not weeks until CT sees the other end of it. And with suppliers either out of stock, limited in stock, or experiencing severe backorder delays, WVAC will gratefully accept PPE including:
- N95 masks of all sizes: Healthcare providers are fit tested to specific N95 sizes. If they are too big or too small, they will not be effective and will put members at risk. Preferably masks should be unopened and unexpired. The new EMS protocol is that these are worn for all calls for the foreseeable future
- Surgical masks: for suspected COVID-19 positive patients
- Surgical gowns: must be donned for any suspected COVID-19 positive patients so uniforms are not contaminated and then potentially spread to WVAC members’ homes and families
- Protective eye wear (safety glasses): must also be worn for all calls for the foreseeable future
- Medical face shields: can be used in lieu of protective eye wear
- Purell hand sanitizer or equivalent: WVAC doesn’t have the luxury of a sink with soap and water in its ambulances.
Donations of PPE on that list can be dropped off at WVAC headquarters at 234 Danbury Road. Depending upon the weather, there will either be a box just outside the front door or just inside the front door. Donors are asked to leave a note with their name and address with their donations so WVAC can acknowledge them and express their gratitude with a thank you letter.
As for those wonderful offers of homemade masks that have popped up on social media, McDermott said, “While we definitely appreciate the efforts, at this time, we cannot use them in place of surgical masks as they do not meet medical grade standards. I know there may be some healthcare professionals that accept them, but we are not at that point at WVAC yet.”
Some businesses like the Painted Cookie have dropped off treats for members, and restaurants like Marly’s and CT Coffee and Grill have offered discounts, free coffee and bagels to first responders. On Wednesday, Wilton resident Nicole Wilson-Spiro started a GoFundMe to fund meals at Marly’s, Pinocchio Pizza and Orem’s Diner for WVAC members on their shifts.
Aside from the GoFundMe campaign, community members may sponsor meals for WVAC through the purchase of gift cards from local restaurants, who are also in need of support due to the economic hit they’re taking from having to shut down their dining rooms. Gift cards should be mailed to WVAC at the address above rather than dropped off in the donation box, for security reasons.
As a reminder, WVAC is not funded by the town; it is a nonprofit 501 (c) (3) organization that depends on donations from the community to continue operating. In addition to the GoFundMe for meals, there is a donation mechanism on the organization’s website.
WVAC does an annual fundraising drive via mail at the end of each year. Unfortunately, each year donations are generally lower than the previous one, with 2019 being no exception.
When to call 911
McDermott and his team understand that residents may be hesitant to call an ambulance at this time as they don’t want to divert any scarce resources from severe COVID-19 cases. To this, McDermott emphatically stated, “To folks that may be too scared to call an ambulance right now–if you are having a 9-1-1 emergency, please do not hesitate to call 9-1-1. We are there for you 24/7. If you need hospital care, we will make sure you get it. Please be assured that our crews are taking precautions before, during, and after every call to keep both our crew members and our patients safe.”
He has instructions for non 9-1-1 emergencies too: “Per the State of CT, ‘People who are sick should not leave their homes except where they must do so to fill a critical need or receive medical care, and only after a telehealth visit to determine if leaving home is in the best interest of their health.’”
McDermott also wanted us to share the following message: “On behalf of the Wilton Volunteer Ambulance Corps, we would like to sincerely thank our members, as well as the community, who has been so generous to us over the past several days. Stay safe, stay home and we’ll see you all on the other side of this.”