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‘A lot of good in a short time:’ COVID-19 paramedics reflect on program as it comes to an end

SALISBURY — When Summer Surratt walked into a home where a COVID-19 positive patient was waiting alone for someone to provide care, she knew exactly what they were going through.

Surratt, who has been a paramedic with Rowan County Emergency Services for 12 years, was in the same position in July when she tested positive for the coronavirus. For over two weeks, she quarantined away from her family, recovering from the virus on her own.

“I was quarantined, it wasn’t just for 14 days, it was like 17 days,” Surratt said. “… It’s difficult. That mentality is difficult. The fact that I was so weak and didn’t have someone to check on me was very, very hard.”

After fully recovering, Surratt was given the opportunity to provide people with the care she didn’t have.

Over the past five months, Surratt was one of four Rowan County paramedics that were temporarily reassigned to the COVID-19 community paramedics program and were charged with administering care to homebound coronavirus patients.

“They didn’t have this program when I was sick,” Surratt said. “The concern was to see how we could care for these folks and make their lives easier while they’re under quarantine.”

The program was made possible by CARES Act funding from the federal government that was distributed by the county. Rowan County dedicated around $130,000 for paramedic salaries and to pay for equipment for the program. As the year comes to an end, so will the COVID-19 community paramedics program when  funding runs out

The program was always meant to be temporary, but the difference made by the four paramedics will be long lasting. 

From 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day, the four paramedics juggled providing care to 329 COVID-19 patients, many of whom were going through one of the most difficult periods of their lives alone.

After receiving a call for help from a COVID-19 positive patient, the paramedics made a home visit, arriving in a Ford SUV in order to preserve their patients’ privacy.

Even though they were entering a home where a person had tested positive for COVID-19, Emergency Medical Services Captain Kelly Potts said that he never felt like he was never in danger.

“When we know we’re going into a positive home, the PPE that we put on gives us a little more protection than when we’re actually working on an ambulance,” said Potts, who have been a paramedic for 26 years.

The paramedics suited up in N-95 masks, gowns, goggles and gloves before entering each home. Despite entering hundreds of houses where one or more people had COVID-19, none of the paramedics have tested positive for the virus during the program.

Once inside a home, the first order of business was to conduct an initial assessment, which set the baseline for the care that followed. From there, the paramedics provided care in any way possible. Not only did they administer medicine and provide important information, but they also picked up groceries and for patients who couldn’t leave their homes.

“If they didn’t have enough to sustain their quarantine, we would go get them groceries if we needed to or medications or call their primary care to see if there was another treatment path that they would agree to after an assessment,” Surratt said.

In some cases, Surratt said, the paramedics stepped into the vacant role of a person’s primary healthcare provider and gave them the most up-to-date information about the COVID-19.

Plenty of time was also spent fighting misinformation that patients had received about Coronavirus.

“They need education too,” Surratt said. “That’s a lot of it. There’s a lot of questions that they can’t get a hold of their doctors office to answer. We’ve been dealing with this for so long that we can of know how to direct that information.”

Sometimes, the best treatment that the paramedics gave patients was simple human interaction.

“I think the people that didn’t really have anybody to talk to, I think the opportunity for us to spend some time with them and talk made a major difference in their lives,” Potts said.

Surratt said that she watched patients’ faces light up when they saw them arrive.

The COVID-19 community paramedics provided care to patients for as long as was necessary, which led to them seeing many of the same patients on a daily basis, sometimes for several weeks in a row.

“We’re not just bouncing in, seeing them and leaving,” Surratt said. “We’re seeing them day to day to day until they get to a point where they’re capable enough or their care is adequate enough at home to give them a phone call.”

Sally Rogers, who has been with Rowan County EMS for 14 years, said that daily care allowed them to build bonds with each patient.

“It’s like they’re our family,” Rogers said. “We’ve had such a rapport with them that they really are like family.”

The paramedics didn’t only treat solitary patients. There were plenty of homes they visited in which multiple members of a family were sick and quarantining under the same roof. Potts said that there was one home where they treated four or five sick people.

As the paramedics look back at the past five months, they think about the patients they’ve helped, but they also consider the impact the program has had on them.

“We’re seeing people at their worst and we actually get to see them get better,” Rogers said. “How much more satisfying is that? On the (ambulance) we take them to the hospital and typically we have no idea what happens to them. When we’re a community paramedic, we find out, we know they get better. That’s, to me, what makes this program.”

Once the program ends on Dec. 30, the paramedics will go back to their former roles staffing ambulances. A return to normal was expected, but for the paramedics, the end of the COVID-19 program is bittersweet.

“This is what we signed up for, but I think with the work that we’ve done and have seen, for me it’s kind of a disappointment that it’s coming to an end,” Potts said. “It seems like the number of cases are more and more.”

The program will end, but the paramedics expect the relationships they’ve formed with their patients to continue.

“They’ll stay in touch with us,” Surratt said.

Of the 329 patients that the COVID-19 community paramedics saw from Aug. 10, Potts said that they’ve kept all but 17 out of the hospital. 

“We’ve done a lot of good in the short time that we’ve been doing this,” Surratt said.

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