Spare a thought for EMS workers as Covid-19 rages, says federation president

A young child being treated by a health worker
EMS workers on duty. Image: IFEM
Written by Soligah Solomons

With increased calls, very sick patients and stepping in as intensive care providers, emergency service workers have been at the frontline of the Covid-19 pandemic. Often at their own peril.

Emergency medical services workers are on the frontline of the pandemic. Many of them were victims of it too.

Already struggling with limited resources and a heavy workload, EMS workers had to deal with the added burden of responding to patients possibly infected with Covid-19. They’ve had to field more calls, both in the public and private sector, and deal with an increased number of very sick patients. All this, while dealing with extra decontamination processes between calls.

EMS services around the world had to quickly convert their units into two categories, explains Professor Lee Wallis, President of the International Federation for Emergency Medicine (IFEM). One caters for high risk Covid-19 patients, the other lower risk.

“As cases increase, emergency response needs to reactivate all the treatment centres and isolation centres to be ready to handle increased workload,” he said. “This has a toll on regular health services as many regular services for chronic case and elective cases are postponed or suspended.”

Emergency units also had to step in as critical care as intensive care units (ICU) were at capacity. Even as they split into Covid and non-Covid responders, the pandemic had a knock on effect across on all health workers.

“As such, this led to increased pressure on all facets of the emergency units, especially those that operated beyond capacity,”  said Wallis.

Safety during the pandemic

As the pandemic continues, so do the dangers to emergency response workers. Regular health services are postponed, and staff still have to contend with limited resources. They also live in constant danger of being exposed to the virus.

“The pre-hospital EMS systems need to be extra cautious and consider every call as a potential Covid-19 case,” said Wallis. “This increases the risk of infection among the prehospital staff and the use of extra resource.”

But it is not always easy. As pressure increases, already overworked health workers are forced to act quickly. In some cases they make mistakes, risking their own personal safety.

“Increased workload on staff is the biggest danger, through its impact of fatigue,” said Wallis. “Fatigue leads to increased risk of slips and errors in care of patients, as well as higher risk and infection to health workers.”

One thing he is clear about thous, was the positive effect of the alcohol bans during the lockdown.

“The alcohol bans in the country have contributed positively towards freeing up space by reducing the trauma-related cases,” Wallis said.

African co-operation

Wallis, who also serves as the CEO for the African Federation for Emergency Medicine (AFEM) said technology is playing its part in dealing with the pandemic across the continent.

“This include clinical guidelines, weekly webinars, educational products, evidence reviews and online support,” he adds. “The international body is currently in the process of designing an app that will provide direct support to frontline clinicians.”

The private sector has also contributed more. Abbott Laboratories created the Abbott Fund to assist AFEM by maintaining medical information and educational material. They also provide funding for research related to Covid-19 and its impact on emergency care systems, said the professor.

Funds like these, he said, have been crucial in procuring personal protective equipment for low-income countries in Africa.—Health-e News

About the author

Soligah Solomons