May 7, 2020

Vermont taps local ambulance crews to help with Covid-19 testing

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The state Department of Health has deployed local ambulance crews in the far reaches of the state to help ramp up Covid-19 testing. 

Ten EMS squads will be trained and sent out as needed to help the state reach its goal of 1,000 Covid-19 tests a day, Health Department officials announced Wednesday. 

In the parking lot of the Newport Ambulance Services, about two dozen Newport and Caledonia-Essex County EMTs donned masks, gowns and gloves to try out the procedure. Department of Health nurses demonstrated the tests to the crews before letting the EMTs take their turns. 

Albert Stringer, an advanced emergency medical technician with the Newport services, winced at the procedure — a six-inch Q-tip-like swab inserted up the nose to the back of the mouth. He nevertheless volunteered to let a second EMT try the test on him. 

The crews will be deployed to run facility-wide testing or create pop-up sites in rural communities, said Dan Batsie, the chief of emergency medical services for the department. The Health Department will provide the training, pay for the test kits, and supply the EMS crews with the protective gear they need to run the tests. The state is also reimbursing the crews for their time.

Batsie said he didn’t know how much the effort would cost the state.

Besides Newport and CalEx, eight crews will participate initially: Amcare in St. Albans, Rescue, Inc. in Brattleboro, Garnet in Essex, as well as Hartford, Bennington, Barre Town, Middlebury and Fair Haven departments. More can opt in as well, Bastie said. 

Drew Hazelton, chief of operations at Rescue, Inc. said his EMTs would be trained and ready to start testing by early next week. His operation, which includes nine ambulances and 75 staff members, covers 15 towns in Vermont and New Hampshire. 

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Crews will be deployed to test a site or facilities at the behest of the health department — as long as they’re not busy with 911 calls, Hazelton said. They’d step up to help out “in a specific location for a specific need,” he said.

Hazelton said the contract with the Health Department had no end date. “We’ll be assisting through the end of this pandemic,” he said.

According to Batsie, EMS departments were a natural choice to assist with Covid-19 response. The crews have medical experience and need minimal training. Crews had also reached out to the department within weeks after the pandemic started and offered to test. 

“We weren’t ready at that point,” he said. “But as we looked at it and began we started saying this is a natural resource.” 

The benefits are mutual, he added. Call volumes have decreased 30% during the pandemic, cutting the flow of much-needed cash to local ambulance departments. Paying EMS crews for testing will help fill the gap, he said. The extra hands will allow the Health Department reach facilities or populations who need testing in far-flung corners of the state. 

Bastie said it’s the first step in a broader testing strategy as the state starts to loosen restrictions on social gatherings and businesses. Eventually, the crews may travel to test people in their homes. Pharmacies or home health nurses may also step up to test for Covid-19 as well, he said. 

On April 29, Health Commissioner Mark Levine said he wanted to increase the total number of tests the state has run to 1,000. Vermont has the capacity to run 2,185 tests a day, but has been averaging between 300 and 400 a day. 

That will change as more people go back to work and are exposed to more people with Covid-19, Batsie said. “As we expand this there’s going to be no shortage of demand.”

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