With COVID-19, we failed a basic preparedness test. We can’t repeat that mistake | Opinion

April 1, 2020 6:30 am

LANDOVER, MARYLAND – MARCH 30: Healthcare professionals prepare to screen people for the coronavirus at a testing site erected by the Maryland National Guard in a parking lot at FedEx Field March 30, 2020 in Landover, Maryland. The guard, in cooperation with the state of Maryland and Prince Georges County, said the site will be able to test about 100 people a day for COVID-19 if they have been recommended by a doctor. There has been 1413 confirmed cases of coronavirus in Maryland and 15 deaths since the start of the global pandemic. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

By John R. Ash

In the early 1900s, Spanish-American scholar, philosopher and humanist George Santayana wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” His five volumes of “The Life of Reason: Introduction and Reason in Common Sense” rank as one of the greatest works in modern philosophical history.

That well-known phrase also applies today as the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed how federal, state and local governments, as well as our citizenry fail the basic emergency preparedness test.

Consider 1918, for example, as some 50 million people died worldwide from the Spanish flu. More than 100 years later, the United States still lacks preparedness.

From a public perspective, hospitals never close and will always be open when they are needed.  Yet, we consume news from our favorite sources and learn that health care organizations and providers are overwhelmed. Supplies and beds are scarce, and household items we are accustomed to finding and purchasing with ease are nowhere to be found.

Indeed, these are scary and uncertain times.

For nearly 40 years, I have worked in emergency medical services (EMS) as both an emergency medical technician (EMT) and a paramedic. During my career, I served on a disaster medical assistance team as part of the United States National Disaster Medical System. In 1988, I was deployed to Armenia for a devastating earthquake that killed 25,000 people. As recently as 2005, I spent 10 days at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas providing medical care to hurricane Katrina evacuees.

While I still work part-time as a paramedic and volunteer in my community as a firefighter, I draw from these experiences and countless others, and ask one simple question: How can we help ourselves when help does not arrive?

In February 2003, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) partnered with the Advertising Council to develop the national public service campaign, “Ready.”

It was created to educate and empower Americans to prepare for and respond to a variety of potential emergencies, including a pandemic and nearly 30 other types of natural and human-made situations. I encourage you to visit the website and learn how you can prepare. The responsibility for preparedness must be shared with the public because there comes a time when you may call 911 and no one answers the call.

Americans have short memories and are mainly dependent upon government agencies and local first responders to come to their aid in an emergency. With national shortages of health care workers and first responders, individuals must do their part and be prepared to “go it alone.”

In Pennsylvania alone, 90 percent of our fire departments are volunteer, and the number of volunteer firefighters has declined by nearly 90 percent since the 1970s. Similarly, EMS professionals – EMTs and paramedics – also are dwindling because the work is dangerous and the pay is not far from federal poverty levels.

What does this mean? You must take responsible action to protect you and your family should emergencies arise because your survival may depend upon it.

Am I lecturing? Perhaps, but you must realize every individual can make a difference. For example, you can learn CPR, how to control life-threatening bleeding, and many other emergency techniques. Furthermore, you can take an active role in the survival of you and the ones you love.

FEMA’s mission is simple, as it helps “people before, during and after disasters.”  Your mission should be to prepare to help yourself. You can begin by visiting the website and reviewing empowering educational resources to help you, your family and neighbors prepare for virtually any emergency. Take an active role in being a responsible citizen.

Planning, preparation and awareness will reap dividends when tragedy strikes.

If there’s one thing that SARS, avian influenza, H1N1 and now COVID-19 has shown us, is it is not a matter of if, but when a national emergency can occur. I have seen someone die from a heart attack because no one knew CPR. People can bleed to death before you even finish talking to the 911 dispatcher. I hear “what took you so long” when someone provides an inadequate address. These are senseless tragedies that you can help to prevent.

Together, we can make a difference. Don’t solely rely on assistance that may not come for days following a local, state or federal emergency.

Start today by building a home emergency kit that contains at least 72 hours of emergency supplies for your household and make sure everyone in your family knows how and when to use it. The website contains a downloadable list of what should go in your kit.

Make sure you customize the kit for the needs of your household and take into consideration some of the recent lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic. Stock up on toilet tissue, hand sanitizer, and other items you just could not find. The lives of you and your loved ones may depend on it.

John R. Ash is an associate professor of business and director of the health care management program at Misericordia University in Dallas, Pa.

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