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New York remains the epicenter of the U.S. coronavirus outbreak. Medical teams there are facing a surge of seriously ill patients, and doing so while concerned about their own level of protection from the disease. William Brangham talks to Adam Bliden and Pearse Matthews, EMTs in the state’s Rockland County, about the “terrifying” ordeal of knowing that many patients they pick up won't survive.
New York does remain the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in the U.S. Doctors, nurses, and medical teams who are in that state are bearing the brunt of a surge of seriously ill patients.
William Brangham recently spoke with two who are on the front line about their work.
Adam Bliden is an EMT, an emergency medical technician, in Rockland County, about 25 miles outside New York.
Same with Pearse Matthews. They both drive ambulances, responding to 911 calls across the county.
Like so many places in New York right now, coronavirus has become all-consuming. I spoke to the two of them the other day.
As a percentage of the calls you're getting now, how many would you assume are coronavirus cases?
A hundred percent.
A hundred percent?
The rarity of getting a regular emergency, which sounds crazy, a regular emergency, where someone needs our help right away, and we can do something, in 10 calls, you may have one.
Almost — yes, so it's almost 100 percent are either confirmed cases or suspected cases.
That has got to be — I don't want to put words in your mouth — but nerve-wracking?
Like, if every person you possibly interact with, sometimes very, very close, if you're worried that person has coronavirus, that's got to be, I mean, mentally exhausting.
It is. It is. That coupled with the call volume going up drastically, and in most cases more than doubling your call volume every day.
So, a shift that you might see, you know, eight patients on, you're getting called to 16 to 20 different houses. We're going from 100 calls a week to 200 and 250. It's — it's intense. It's really intense.
It's scary. And I would say a better word to use is terrifying, especially when you don't believe you have the correct PPE to use.
And it's scary. We're scared just as much as the regular person. But, again, we have to do this job. We signed up for this. This is what we do for a living. And EMS personnel and hospital personnel are proud to do it.
But it's very scary. It's not that they're very infectious. That is obviously the case, that COVID is an infectious disease. But it's also that the people that we're seeing may not live.
And as EMS and health care workers, we're used to trying to do our best to save lives. So, it's emotionally taxing, I think, on the health care personnel.
Last week, me specifically, there were at least three patients who I'd seen earlier in the week who I came back to work a couple days later and found out they had passed away.
I was just there. How quickly was that that she went from being alive to not alive anymore, or he went alive to not being alive?
That's got to make the statistics that we see — these numbers and cases going up every day, we see them as bar charts, but, for you guys, it seems obviously a lot more visceral.
Yes, it's not a chart. It's not a graph. It's a person who you saw, who you touched, who you spoke to. And now they're not… now, they're — you know, sadly, they have gone on to become a statistic.
That's — that's one of the harder parts of this, for sure.
Last night, I got off at 2:00 a.m. I went to a friend's house to evaluate his father, who is bed-ridden, who was diagnosed with pneumonia.
I cried from the station to his house, and in front of his house for probably about two additional minutes, because I — you know, during my shift — I worked for 24 hours straight. I couldn't really — you know, I couldn't really have emotions, because I was working.
You know, we have to do our job. We all have to do our job. We signed up for this. This is what we have to do. We have to treat these patients, and make sure everything's OK, and treat the community.
And after the end of our — my shift, I broke down. I cried, you know, just thinking about everything that I had to see, the patients that I knew probably would not make it.
On top of that, we — we have the fear: Have I been exposed? You know, am I going to give it to someone else?
All of us — you ask anyone in emergency services, we're all immortal. You can't kill us. And now it's getting closer to home, that we need to start considering our own health as well.
I think, yesterday, we lost — they were retired guys, but there were two firefighters who passed away yesterday from this. Those are guys who gave their whole life to their fire departments.
So it's getting closer and closer to home for all of us. It's no longer, you know, if we're going to be exposed. That's gone. We're all going to be exposed. We don't know when.
On top of the stresses of the job, of worrying whether they themselves might get sick, many EMTs also have to work for low pay and few benefits.
The average salary for an EMT in New York state, doing what we're doing through all of this, is about $37,000 a year.
Right now, both Pearse and I, everyone who's doing what we're doing, we're juggling, usually, it's two or three jobs just to keep working, so we can pay our bills.
We do this because we love it. Everyone knows there's no money in it. But, right now, I'm doing all of this with no health insurance.
No health insurance?
No health insurance.
How — how is that possible…
… it doesn't come through the job?
The job doesn't offer it. And our affordable marketplaces aren't very affordable.
If I get sick and, OK, I go get tested positive, I can't go to the hospital. Literally, life or death is what's going to put me in the hospital.
It's scary. And, you know, people come out, and they show us their support. And I love it. I love — I have eaten so much pizza in the last two weeks. It's been great.
I don't need pizza. I need to be able to pay my bills. I need to be able to work a 40-hour work week, and live like a normal human being.
I know you guys have probably seen all these videos of people clapping out when there's a hospital shift rotating out.
And, I mean, I hope you know that there is — everybody out there does, on some level, appreciate how crucial you all are to keeping all of us safe.
I appreciate you saying that.
And it's tremendous support. And we need it, because it's not easy. It's really not easy. You know, we're scared also.
The general public is scared about this virus, and we are too. But we also know that this is our job. And we love to do this. This is something that you have to have passion for helping people, and on the medical side, just making sure — fixing people and making sure they're OK is something that we like to do. We love to do it.
So it makes — it makes us feel really good when we feel the support from the regular people and also from other agencies, like police and fire. I appreciate that a lot.
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William Brangham is a correspondent and producer for PBS NewsHour in Washington, D.C. He joined the flagship PBS program in 2015, after spending two years with PBS NewsHour Weekend in New York City.
Jason Kane is a PBS NewsHour producer, focusing on health care and national affairs.
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