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COVID-19 exacerbating nationwide shortage of EMS workers, leaving families at risk

Posted at 3:38 PM, Dec 29, 2021

DETROIT, MI (WXYZ) — COVID-19 isn't just hitting our community, it is also hitting our first responders and is exacerbating a nationwide shortage of EMS workers.

In Detroit, 107 fire and medical first responders were out due to COVID-19 illnesses or quarantines.

So what happens when you call 911 in a pandemic? One man says he found out the hard way.

"He couldn’t talk. He was twitching like he was having a seizure, but he’s never had a seizure," Charles Johnson said.

When Charles Johnson found his dad struggling with a medical emergency, he says his girlfriend called 911 asking for an ambulance and got disturbing news.

"That they’re full," he said.

And as his phone shows, after waiting, he then called again and again. Desperate for help, he called back claiming there was a shooting. Police arrived on the scene and called for an ambulance. At this time, Johnson said about 30 minutes had passed since the first 911 call. EMS then told dispatchers they're about 30 minutes away. At 1:16, 49 minutes after Johnson called, an ambulance made it to the scene.

"COVID is hitting us just as strongly as it is hitting the community," Superintendent of Emergency Medical Services Sean Larkins said.

According to Larkins, there are serious staffing shortages: 10% of his staff was out this week due to COVID-19 illnesses or quarantine protocols.

"It takes a toll on your body physically, on your mind mentally, and on your heart emotionally," Larkins said.

It also stresses the ability to respond. Instead of the typical 22 or 23 ambulances running, they've had times where there were as few as 15.

"The transport may be delayed more than we would like to see, but you are still getting medical attention, oxygen, defibrillation if you need it."

Larkins says the department has cross-trained firefighters as medics to get medical help on scene. Despite shortages, he says on average help arrives in 8 minutes, even if an ambulance is not available.

He says don’t falsely report violence, that could delay medical help as they wait for police to clear the scene.

In the meantime, Larkins is asking the community to be proactive.

"See your physician or go to urgent care if your situation warrants it. Please do so because emergency rooms are busy and we do prioritize life-threatening calls," Larkins said.

As for Johnson’s dad, he is in the hospital recovering.

"It was almost heartbreaking. I thought I was going to lose my dad. That is nothing to play with."

This is not just a Detroit issue. EMS industry leaders say there are about 1,000 openings around the state as communities around Michigan deal with staffing shortages exacerbated by COVID-19.