When it came time to evacuate dozens of vulnerable residents from St. Joseph’s Senior Home in Woodbridge last month, the job fell to members of New Jersey EMS Task Force and its fleet of 20-person medical transport vehicles to move them safely to another facility.
That effort is one of many roles the task force has played in the Garden State’s frontline response to the coronavirus pandemic. The group works directly with state and county emergency leaders to staff testing sites, mobile clinics and other regional operations; it also coordinates the work of the out-of-state medical units providing coverage for New Jersey’s patchwork quilt of municipal, volunteer and hospital-based ambulance squads.
The task force — which some called the “hidden gem” of New Jersey’s emergency response — is not a government agency, but a nonprofit entity comprised of 200-plus experienced first responders from around the state who pool their knowledge and resources to help ensure residents are connected with medical care during public health emergencies.
The EMS Task Force was created after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York City, which underscored the need for a coordinated regional response to emergencies — especially given the hybrid, highly localized nature of New Jersey’s medical response. The group functions as a liaison to the state Department of Health and other agencies in planning, training and responding to large incidents, like Superstorm Sandy. It receives some grant funding and a minor DOH stipend.
“They are dramatically improving the efficiency of our response,” said state Sen. Declan O’Scanlon (R-Monmouth), who has worked with the task force on EMS issues over the years. “Without them we would have been in real danger of parts of the system falling apart.”
COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus — now diagnosed in more than 109,000 New Jerseyans, including nearly 6,000 who have died — has flooded hospitals with patients struggling to breathe, and many of them arrive by ambulance. Local squads, particularly in the northern part of the state, have faced a far higher volume of calls than normal, patients who are extremely sick and a high number of fatalities, all of which takes a toll on even the most experienced responders.
Maintaining statewide emergency services
Maintaining a robust EMS workforce through the pandemic has been among the greatest challenges, according to those involved. Like other frontline medical professionals, some responders have become sick with COVID-19. In a few places, including communities in Essex and Morris counties, volunteer squads have had to “stand down” when they did not have enough healthy staff to continue answering calls.
So far, coverage in those areas has been arranged, thanks to neighboring squads or visiting crews, although response times — which are hard to track statewide — are up in some spots, responders said. There are now 100 out-of-state ambulances staffed by more than 400 volunteers, stationed at the MetLife Stadium parking lot in the Meadowlands, according to state officials. These responders are hired through a national contract and the final cost, still to be determined, will be covered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (75%) and the state (25%), they said.
“It’s a great example of adapting and overcoming. And we do that well in our profession,” said Mike McCabe, the EMS deputy coordinator for Hudson County, who is also a responder in Bayonne. “We’re in pretty decent shape right now” in terms of staff and other resources, he said on Saturday, “but we are worried about a second wave” of COVID-19 patients. (Many public health experts agree the virus could rebound.)
New Jersey has also encouraged EMS professionals who may have retired, or let their licenses lapse, to become recertified and volunteer their skills. Gov. Phil Murphy issued a series of waivers designed to ease this process, although critics note multi-hour online classes are still required for some individuals. As of Friday, more than 200 people with emergency medical response training had applied for the program, officials said, and state workers were reviewing their documentation.
“We can use all the help we can get. We’ve said that many times, and we say it again today. Our current in-state crews are doing a tremendous job,” Murphy said in mid-April when he first called for EMS volunteers. “But we know we can still use more.”
Once on the job, EMS responders face multiple challenges dealing with the coronavirus. They must swaddle themselves in protective gear and do an initial assessment from the curb — or at a distance — to determine the level of care needed and the number of responders it will require, which can delay getting patients to treatment; obtaining the needed gear is another challenge. Squads must disinfect themselves and their ambulance after each run, a procedure that members said is physically and mentally exhausting.
“This is so unknown. No one has ever seen anything like this from an EMS perspective,” said Andy Lovell, the Gloucester County EMS chief and a task force leader. “We have to assume every single person is symptomatic,” he said, meaning that EMS personnel must wear personal protection equipment, or PPE.
Efforts by the health department in recent years to formalize the role of the task force as part of a broader advisory panel prompted concerns from some in the EMS community, who suggested the group was being sidelined. But task force members praised DOH Commissioner Judith Persichilli’s efforts to work with its members and said the cooperation that has resulted highlights the model’s promise as a statewide resource.
“Many of the roads that were a little rough previously have been paved a little smoother,” noted founding task force member Mickey McCabe, who owns a private ambulance company based in Bayonne (and is Mike’s father). Things still aren’t perfect, he noted, “but we do get to meet in the middle.”
Some, like O’Scanlon, believe the state should capitalize on this positive momentum and find ways to better support the task force. “They’ve proven to be a wildly valuable entity,” he said, “and we need to find a way to bolster their response.”
Former acting DOH Commissioner Christopher Rinn, who oversaw public health and the task force work for years, agreed. “They are an integral aspect of our state’s public health response,” said Rinn, now CEO of VNACJ Community Health Centers, a health care system for low-income residents.
Regardless of what happens, task force members said they are overwhelmed by the appreciation the public has shown for the work they do — something they haven’t experienced in the past. Squads never go hungry, given the amount of food being donated at their headquarters daily, they said. One member choked up recalling an anonymous ‘thank you’ note left on his windshield.
“There’s a new cadre of heroes out there. Or they’ve always been there, but nobody recognized them,” Mickey McCabe said.
“The morale of the EMTs in this state is excellent. They are committed to doing the job,” said task force chairman Michael Bascom. “For once, it’s not police, fire and the other people.”