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The home for VPR's coverage of health and health industry issues affecting the state of Vermont.

Vermont's EMS Volunteers: On The Front Line Of The Coronavirus Response

A person stands next to a red rescue truck.
Howard Weiss-Tisman
Keith Hermiz heads the all-volunteer Grafton Rescue Squad. Most of the EMS squads in Vermont rely on volunteers, and they're now preparing for the new coronavirus.

If there’s an outbreak of the new coronavirus here, Vermont’s first responders will be on the front lines of the health crisis.On a recent afternoon, Grafton Rescue Squad president Keith Hermiz made a few calls to the town’s dispatch service.

Hermiz has about 12 members in the all-volunteer squad, and he was trying to find out if the dispatch service is starting to ask questions when patients call to find out if there’s a chance that patient could be carrying the disease known as COVID-19.

Before the weekend there was one confirmed case of the coronavirus in the U.S., in Washington State.

And when Hermiz came into the office Monday, the disease had appeared in New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

The information is changing almost by the hour, and Hermiz said he’s keeping up on all of it to protect his staff and the public.

More from VPR — What Are Your Questions, Concerns And Experiences With Coronavirus?

“In Grafton, we have a lot of people who do travel. They have the means to do that,” Hermiz said. “I think having people who would travel to China is not out of the question. We do have a lot of tourism, as many places in Vermont, right? So if you talk about a place that’s going to be a crossroads for people who have potentially been infected, I think it’s inevitable.”

Vermont Department of Health Chief of Emergency Medical Services Dan Batsie said most of the EMS workers in Vermont are volunteers.

There are about 180 rescue and ambulance squads in the state, and only eight of them have full-time paid staff. The rest rely on volunteers who are otherwise busy with their day jobs.

“A rural system is always a challenge, right? Because it’s not like you have a bunch of people sitting at the stations ready to go,” Batsie said. “ So, there’s still a lot we don’t know, and there’s a pretty dynamic change going on.”

Vermont recently updated its health information system, and Batsie said thousands of volunteers across the state now receive text messages or emails with the latest news.

A hand on a paper.
Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR
Grafton Rescue Squad President Keith Hermiz points to a Centers For Disease Control flow chart, which helps EMS responders understand what to do if they suspect a patient has the new coronavirus.

For now, he said, EMS responders need to take the same precautions they would take with any patient who’s showing signs of respiratory symptoms.

“Now look, will that change, as we begin to see community infection, you know person-to-person infection in the United States? It might,” Batsie said. “ And we may have to be taking more aggressive personal protective steps. But right now that doesn’t seem to make sense. And right now that’s none of the indications we’re getting from like CDC and places like that.”

The Grafton Rescue Squad sent out a Facebook post last weekto let the community know that the squad was monitoring the situation.

Hermiz said if first responders show up and someone is showing flu-like symptoms, the patient will probably be asked to wear a mask and be treated as if they might be carrying the disease.

“In a small community like this, everything is personal,” HErmiz said. “So just to let people know that this is a standard precaution we’ll be taking. And I thought it was good just to give people a heads-up and how it might look locally if they actually were suspected of having it.”

More from VPR — Vermont Health Officials Preparing For Possible Arrival Of Coronavirus

In the meantime, Hermiz is making sure he’s got gloves and masks, and that he’s watching the information that’s coming over from the state.

And otherwise, it's business as usual. For instance: There was a bad snowmobile crash in Grafton last weekend. It was cold. A woman had broken her leg, and the first responders helped get her out of the woods.

They did not put a mask on the woman or treat her as if she might be carrying the coronavirus.

Hermiz said the volunteer squad will report to whatever comes over the radio:

“So whether it’s a fire or a heart attack, or a person with an amputated leg, you know, I mean it sort of falls into that category, of things that we’re — in theory — prepared to deal with. And we just need to go be smart about how we deal with it.”

Howard Weiss-Tisman is Vermont Public’s southern Vermont reporter, but sometimes the story takes him to other parts of the state. 
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