Paramedics are trained to make patient contact. Precautions are taken, but every call means contact with someone who could be contagious.
"We understand that we have 100 percent exposure risk on every single call," Akron Lt. Sierjie Lash said.
The up-close and personal contact is why personal protective equipment (PPE) is so important, and why Summit County Director of Public Safety Lori Pesci said the county is asking the public for more of it amidst the coronavirus pandemic.
"We are in conservation mode right now, trying to be mindful that medical experts are saying the worst hasn't hit yet," Pesci said.
Summit County is putting out a call to dentists, construction companies, small businesses and really anyone who has PPE, including masks, swabs, gloves, gowns and whatever people can spare.
COVID-19 hit other countries first. Pesci said we have the benefit of seeing what’s ahead, but as "behind the eight ball" on resources since many of them went to those place first.
The county is asking people to contact Summit County Public Health to donate. Pesci said the county’s Emergency Management Agency will inventory it, and distribute it across the county to healthcare professionals and first responders.
Emergency Management Agency Director Thomas Smoot said distribution will depend, since there’s not a surplus of it, and everything is new.
"There are worldwide shortages of PPE," Smoot said. "So we have to get creative locally."
The agency has also been coordinating with fire departments across the county to prepare for what’s to come.
Cuyahoga Falls Assistant Fire Chief Chris Martin said the department has been putting almost all of its efforts into making sure it’s out in front of the virus. He said PPE will be a must.
"We’re as prepared as we can be right now, however, there’s shortages of every aspect of PPE," Martin said. "We are actively reaching out to business owners and other entities that might have PPE that we can acquire."
Belfor Property Restoration has already donated 2,080 N-95 masks along with some disinfectants to the department. General Manager Zak Strausser, said he had enough to keep his workers safe, and give some to the first responders that need it.
Those donations are important, since Martin said new shipments of masks aren’t available. Adding to the difficulty, he said they don’t know how fast they’ll burn through PPE, or how long the coronavirus crisis will last.
"This is extremely difficult to try and have to deal with when you consider how long it might go on," Martin said.
Paramedics' first line of defense is gloves, which are worn on every call, but there’s a host of other options if needed. Akron Fire District Chief Joseph Natko, who manages the EMS bureau, said the department has a pretty robust protocol it adheres to for exposure.
Natko said personnel have hand, respiratory, eye, and full body protection if needed. Dispatchers' communication with patients informs paramedics on what they’ll need.
Many departments have added questions to screen specifically for coronavirus symptoms.
"We are addressing it right from the moment the phone calm comes in," Natko said.
Fire Departments are also preparing for the possibility of their first responders getting sick.
In Columbus, a firefighter/EMT tested positive for COVID-19, the city announced Sunday. The fire station was temporarily out of service for sanitation, and 31 firefighters who had contact with the one who tested positive were evaluated. There were no other known cases in the departments as of Wednesday.
Both Hudson and Tallmadge spokespeople said personnel in their fire departments are having their temperature taken. Tallmadge Mayor David Kline said the fire stations were also shut down to visitors, except in cases of emergency.
Martin said they are preparing for the potential that the department has a lot of guys get sick.
"If we lose a large number of our workforce, we have to have a plan in place to make sure stations are staffed," Martin said.
Both Akron and Cuyahoga Falls Fire said they’ve asked personnel not directly in contact with patients to practice social distancing, both in the field and in the station. Disinfecting the station and decontaminating the squad after calls has always been a priority, the departments said.
Lash said dealing with infectious diseases is nothing new for fire departments. Tuberculosis, HIV and other diseases are things they look out for already. The problem is that coronavirus isn’t just new to here, it's new globally.
"The biggest thing that makes this a game changer is that this is new," Lash said. "Everyone is trying to figure this out at the same time."
Reach Akron Beacon Journal reporter Sean McDonnell at firstname.lastname@example.org or 330-996-3186.