By Alyssa Choiniere
UNIONTOWN, Pa. — Decreased call volumes and surging costs for personal protective equipment have created a perfect storm for emergency responders, and Fayette EMS is feeling the toll.
They received $125,000 in grant money, but lost about $600,000 in income and the funding has largely dried up, said Fayette EMS Administrative Director Bob Topper.
“We received $125,000, and we’ve spent it all,” he said, and compared their situation to families facing the end of unemployment checks. “If this continues any longer, we’re going to run out. We’ve run through our first batch, and something needs to happen or it’s going to be a rough start to the first of the year.”
Their call volume was down 50% in the spring, and has only slowly ticked upward. It is now down about 30% even while their emergency calls are up. The decrease is largely due to a steep drop-off in non-emergency calls, such as transporting patients from nursing homes. Fayette EMS, a non-profit organization, has a $7.5 million budget, and 98% of that is based on billing for ambulance calls.
He said they are grateful for the support from federal, local and state funding programs. Fayette County District Attorney Rich Bower donated disinfectant machines, and the Fayette County commissioners donated equipment that allows them to treat critically ill patients with minimal physical contact. They have also received a regular supply of surgical masks from the Community Foundation of Fayette County and the Fayette County Emergency Management Agency has regularly supplied PPE.
“It saved us,” Fayette EMS Chief Rick Adobato said of their funding sources. “Without these programs, I can’t imagine we’d be able to continue. We wouldn’t be able to continue.”
Personal protective equipment is largely a new cost to Fayette EMS. They always had a small stockpile on hand, but only used it a maximum of about 10 times per year.
“And COVID hit, and the prices to buy, if you could get them, were astronomical,” Adobato said.
Gloves that once cost $5 per box are $12 or $13, and they are difficult to get because their supplier provides stock based on what they used historically. The costs of N95 masks increased drastically, and continually fluctuate. Gowns have been notoriously difficult to find, so they decided to buy rain ponchos.
“We had our people walking around in yellow rain ponchos, but they were a barrier,” Adobato said.
They also found filters by taking apart furnace filters, and often drove long distances to secure cleaning supplies, sometimes using bleach in place of disinfectant that does not degrade equipment.
“There was a lot of ingenuity that went on through this whole thing. We had to make do with what we could get. No one was prepared for anything like this,” he said. “There seems to be a roadblock to everything we had to do, and we had to go around it to get our supplies.”
He said it is a constant battle to keep PPE in stock, despite regular donations.
“We’re burning through masks and gloves at an unbelievable rate,” he said.
They use about 1,000 surgical masks per week and about 2,000 pairs of gloves per month.
“And we’re always short,” Adobato said. “So yeah, it’s tough.”
They received a donation of 27,000 sets of PPE in May from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, but have yet to receive them. Topper said they are expecting it in December.
“That’s the kind of backlog we’re working with,” he said.
They assume that every patient is COVID-19 positive, gearing up with PPE and thoroughly sanitizing and disinfecting before and after calls. They recently went on a call for a car accident where both patients had tested positive for COVID-19, Topper said. Calls also take longer with additional sanitizing measures. A call that would have taken one hour now takes about an hour and a half, Adobato said.
They said the pandemic has shone a spotlight on the importance of EMS, which Topper hopes will eventually translate to federal regulations to help deal with staffing shortages, such as free training in EMS and nursing.
“We’ve always lived payday to payday. We’ve lived payday to payday for 25 years, oftentimes on the backs of our employees,” Adobato said. “But during covid, we’ve proven how critical EMS really is.”
Adobato encouraged people to sign up for their subscription drive.
“This year, more than any other time, we need people to help us get through this deficit right now,” he said.
To donate or sign up for the subscription service, visit www.fayetteems.com or call 724-628-2508.
Alyssa Choiniere is a reporter for the Uniontown Herald-Standard, a publishing partner of the Pennsylvania Capital-Star, where this story is being simultaneously published. Email her at [email protected]