First responders gear up to fight the siege of COVID in Paterson

Within its densely packed eight square miles, Paterson is being tested by COVID-19 on a more or less equal basis as New York City.

More than 1,600 residents have tested positive, including Mayor Andre Sayegh, and the city has a rate of infection that’s actually slightly higher than in Paterson’s big neighbor to the east. And on a per-capita basis, its emergency crews are responding to roughly the same number of calls from residents suffering with COVID-19 symptoms as their counterparts in the Big Apple.

Officials say that density is a big factor in Paterson, the nation’s second most densely populated American city with a population of 100,000 or more, just behind New York.

“We are moving at the same rate as New York City,” said Jerry Speziale, the city’s public safety director, “because of that density, because of the call volume.”

Crews have to make critical, life-saving decisions on the spot, knowing that the condition of those with the virus can deteriorate precipitously.

“If they’re below 93% oxygen saturation, automatically we’ve got to get them on oxygen so they don’t go into some sort of respiratory failure,” Fire Chief Brian McDermott said. “And we need to keep their oxygen level up, because many — you’ll start out and they look OK, you get them into the ambulance and by the time you get them to the hospital, you’re doing CPR.”

Some of the time, there’s little the crews can do. “We saw a spike in on-scene fatalities last week, late last week and coming into this week,” McDermott said.

The city is home to the main campus of St. Joseph’s Regional Medical Center and doctors there say that some COVID-19 patients are arriving with severe cases.

“Unfortunately what we’re seeing now is not only an uptick in the amount of patients, but we’re seeing the acuity rise,” said Dr. Joseph Duffy, St. Joe’s chief medical officer. “So what I mean by that is patients are coming in sicker, we evaluate them rapidly and they deteriorate rapidly. They’re required to be put on ventilators and require supplemental oxygen immediately.”

Right now, Paterson’s fire and EMS crews are averaging about 160 calls a day, and about 40% of those end up going to the emergency room. They’re logging every positive case so that they can track where the virus has spread throughout the city.

Officials have developed systems to keep up with the volume as safely as possible.

“In a three-person ambulance, the driver cannot get out,” McDermott said. “The two attendants, one automatically dons what’s called a higher-level Tychem suit. It’s harder plastic on the shell so it’s really easy to decontaminate, along with the hazmat boots, goggles, gloves, P100. And they’ll be taped up so they’re fully protected.”

Crews have also developed an efficient decontamination system for the inside rear of the ambulance, using infrared lights, and for the protective gear worn by the first responders.

“He’ll stand there while he gets sprayed by a solution,” McDermott said, describing the process. “He’ll just spin around then he’ll come out and air dry for another 10 minutes. And as soon as he’s done with the air drying they go right to another ambulance and they take another call in.”

How many times do they do that in a given day?

“Each individual will do that about 17 calls,” McDermott said, “17 times in a 12-hour shift.”

About 70% of both of St. Joseph’s facilities, here and in Wayne, are dedicated to COVID care. They’ve treated over 1,000 cases in the last few weeks. Capacity isn’t an issue yet, and neither is personal protective equipment for medical personnel, officials say.

But Sayegh said preparations are being made for the numbers to grow, steps that include re-opening a hospital that’s been closed since 2008.

“We are going to use Barnert Hospital, which closed over 10 years ago, for acute-care beds, over 150 acute-care beds,” he said from home where he’s recuperating, “so that we can address the COVID needs with critical care and make sure that the hospital’s not overwhelmed.”

He was asked about his condition.

“I feel fine, and I’m only going to get better because I’m going to regain my sense of smell,” he said.

“I haven’t had fever, cough, respiratory issues,” he added. “I don’t have shortness of breath. And for all I know, I have my acumen, my mental acumen.”

Sayegh said he’s ready to get back out there to help his city win this war.