Ambulance

In early April, an ambulance headed toward the emergency room at Henrico Doctors’ Hospital in Henrico County. Emergency services agencies have faced personal protective equipment shortages during the COVID-19 pandemic.

When the 1918 influenza pandemic swept across Virginia, communication tools and emergency services naturally were primitive compared to today.

According to a March RTD story citing Encyclopedia Virginia figures, around 20,000 people in Richmond fell ill with the virus and more than 1,000 died. A front page from The Times-Dispatch archives shows how data was collected from “telegraphic reports” as army camps experienced outbreaks.

Fifty years later, the first U.S. 9-1-1 call was made in Alabama. Despite the growth of cellphones, the availability of emergency text messaging in our region and other improvements, recent reports suggest concerning trends in our emergency services system.

The Richmond Ambulance Authority (RAA) recently told WRIC-TV that calls are down almost 20% from this point last year. But cardiac arrest has spiked by 30%. RAA officials fear COVID-19 is deterring patients from using 9-1-1 for key needs.

A March messaging memo from the Central Virginia All Hazards Incident Management Team spelled out six situations where you should call 9-1-1: difficulty breathing or choking; an allergic reaction; symptoms of a heart attack or stroke; feeling confused, disoriented or dizzy; difficulty speaking, walking or seeing; and sudden, severe pain.

While the RAA assures Richmonders it is safe to call 9-1-1, first responders have hurdles beyond providing lifesaving care. A Tuesday RTD report detailed how private ambulance companies across Virginia still face severe shortages of emergency supplies. Exhibit A: Agencies are turning to Walmart and dollar stores to buy ponchos in the absence of gowns.

State officials say requests to the federal Strategic National Stockpile were fulfilled in a piecemeal manner. And while the state distributed those supplies around the commonwealth, only 7% of the items went to EMS agencies, the RTD report said.

Paranoia among patients and a lack of protection for first responders is a fatal combination. In 2018, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention noted that in 1918, life expectancy for Americans plunged by 12 years. We’re more than a century removed from the flu pandemic and a half century has passed since the nation’s first 9-1-1 dispatch. Yet, we’re struggling.

If we’re ready to reopen our economy, let’s also invest time and energy in creating confidence and efficacy in our emergency services. Calling 9-1-1 should be a step toward safety, not danger.

Chris Gentilviso

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