First responders fight COVID-19 even as virus thins their ranks

EMS crews serving University Hospital struggled to keep pace last month as COVID-19 cases surged in Newark. Ambulance squads — with 24 of their own members falling sick with the virus — fell behind, according to John Grembowiec, the hospital’s EMS director.

“At any given time we were backed up 30 to 40 calls, 24/7. And that alone is very stressful for our people,” said Grembowiec. “Our dispatchers triaged the most serious calls. They immediately bumped up to the top of the list for priority.”

COVID-19 slammed New Jersey’s frontline responders as officials scrambled to establish standard infection control protocols — realizing any response could involve the virus.

“We have our equipment, we make sure that everybody is sanitized, but there is, you know, no room for a police officer or a firefighter and our EMS to go home. They can’t stay home,” said Paterson Public Safety Director Jerry Speziale. “And there is so many calls that come in. Our call volume has gone up.”

Speziale says the virus initially tore through first responders in Paterson. The city’s police ranks remain down 18%. Statewide, some 1,500 police officers have either tested positive or are self-quarantined. EMS staff is on the rebound in urban areas — where help arrived from 100 out-of-state squads — through FEMA’s National Ambulance Contract. Newark got 15 crews.

Among the five squads assigned to Paterson was South Carolinian Melissa Bauer. She’s used to hurricanes, not pandemics.

“I was scared to death coming here. You know, I have family and I was scared. But once I got here — that was only my second ride here in Jersey — but I felt much better now that I know that we are being protected,” she said.

Between runs, Paterson EMTs get thoroughly disinfected, so do the vehicles. But it’s non-stop during almost every shift in many cities. It’s a grueling pace for a dangerous job.

“They’re afraid to bring it home to their families. They’re afraid to catch it themselves, so they’re on edge. Everybody’s on edge,” said Grembowiec.

The strain on smaller, all-volunteer squads has pushed at least a couple of units, like those in Mine Hill and Cedar Grove, to suspend operations, according to New Jersey’s EMS Task Force. It’s a tough job emotionally even under the best conditions. COVID has made it harder.

“We’ve been trying to provide the squad officers with resources to help with the mental well-being of our members to hopefully keep them from burning out and continue doing what they need to do,” said Mike Tarantino, Bergen County EMS director.

Tarantino works in Bergen County — where the virus first hit New Jersey. Since then, 13 EMS workers have died statewide. Even under the grueling conditions, it’s still difficult to convince some responders that they need a break.

But they’re very glad when reinforcements arrive.

“We’re going to have to go work like crazy for 12 hours, go back to our hotels, sleep, get ready, do it all again,” said Gerry Whittaker, a firefighter and paramedic from Buck Creek Township, Indiana.

They’ll pull long shifts in surreal situations. But everyone is most welcome.