Despite the fact that Newtown Volunteer Ambulance Corps (NVAC) responders and local paramedics have answered calls involving hundreds of patients showing symptoms of the coronavirus, and transporting many who tested positive, the organization has so far been able to attest that all of its members remain COVID-free.
Current NVAC Chief Liz Caine along with corps board volunteers Judy Jackson, Ryan Horn, and Michelle Greenspan called into The Newtown Bee October 20 to talk about how each and every one of the dozens of local emergency responders are combining advanced technology with proven safety practices and good old-fashioned diligence to keep all members and patients safe from the virus and other communicable illnesses.
“In the beginning when we didn’t really know what we were dealing with, it was kind of scary,” Caine admitted. “At that point we had enough PPE [personal protective equipment] for our normal use, and this thing came along and we were left scrambling to get stuff.”
But Greenspan said it was members of the community who came through, supporting the NVAC by donating surgical masks.
“One day a couple of young girls showed up looking like they had gone to a number of stores to get us masks, gloves, protective safety glasses,” Caine said. “That really made a difference and tided us over until the state started doling out PPE big time.”
Once the necessary stock of PPE was fortified and a supply chain for restocking was assured, Caine said, “we were greatly relieved. There was a period of time there where we were worried about what we would do if we ran out.”
During that time Caine said the corps did face a period where its volunteers were limited to PPE on hand because every supplier was out of stock.
“We always kept a couple weeks of surplus, but gloves were getting scarce and wipes were scarce,” she recalled.
Caine said when Police Chief James Viadero and Capt Christopher Vanghele learned the NVAC was running low on supplies, they reached out with a contact that provided a timely solution, delivering necessary supplies including face respirators with reusable filter systems that could simply be washed, disinfected, and used over and over again.
“That was a great relief, and it was easier to breathe out of those advanced respirators, too,” Caine said.
Besides being ultra vigilant about following all disinfecting protocols after before, during, and after each ambulance call, Caine said members also need to maintain contacts with suppliers so they can stay ahead of possible shortfalls in PPE or adjust accordingly.
She said every day volunteers come in and disinfect the headquarters from top to bottom.
“We scrub doorknobs, light switches, chairs, TV remotes, the handles on cabinets and appliances, computer equipment — anything we might touch,” she said. “Whoever is here, they do a deep cleaning every morning, and then anyone who comes in during the day is taking care of cleaning as they go.”
Greenspan said even more vigilance is applied to the ambulances.
“After each patient, each vehicle gets a full cleaning and decontamination is performed to ensure both responders’ safety, and the safety of each new patient on board,” she said.
Long before COVID, the state required each emergency transport service to maintain infection control documentation and personnel dedicated to it, Caine said.
“It just got more enhanced with the onset of COVID,” Greenspan added.
One of the most important and costly acquisitions the NVAC made was investing in a FirstResponder Sterilizer. It is a device using advanced technology that generates ozone gas and ions, which eliminate harmful surface and airborne pathogens including COVID-19, MRSA, C. Difficile, norovirus, TB, influenza, and hepatitis.
The unit, priced at nearly $8,000, is under the care and operation of EMT Horn.
“He thoroughly decontaminates all the ambulances routinely, but if we have a COVID-positive patient, we will take it out of service and Ryan will run the unit and decontaminate it,” Caine said.
Horn said each initial decontaminating session using the new unit takes four hours, and if there has been no contamination exposure inside, subsequent applications using the device take about an hour.
“The machine releases ozone into the closed up ambulance and sterilizes everything within that sealed environment,” Horn said. “It scrubs it and then the machine removes all the ozone particles afterwards, because ozone is a hazardous material.”
“We open up every compartment so the ozone can get into every nook and cranny — it scrubs all the surfaces and kills all kinds of pathogens and then recaptures the air,” Caine said. “We could not get the ambulances that clean even if we spent five times as much effort doing it manually.”
In the three months or so before the NVAC acquired the ozone machine, Caine said volunteers were using a power sprayer filled with peroxide that was loaned by one of the local fire companies to help clean the ambulances as best they could.
Newtown’s emergency dispatchers also played a critical role in protecting responding ambulance personnel, as well as police and fire responders to every call, by using an interview protocol that helped identify possible contaminated patients or victims.
“They ask and tell us if a caller is COVID-positive or exhibiting flu-like symptoms so we can take the necessary precautions and get our PPE on,” Caine said.
Heightened Personal Vigilance
“Maintaining our personal PPE was really important,” Greenspan said. “As we are seeing in the news, people are getting more comfortable and maybe not protecting themselves as diligently at home and when they are interacting in small groups. That makes each of us heighten our own vigilance in terms of wearing PPE.”
That means every responder needs to assume any individual they may come in contact with could be COVID positive, she said.
“I guess it’s fair to say that is the case with every interaction. Not just with EMS but anywhere you go — even places like the grocery store,” Greenspan said. “If you are wearing a mask and your patient, or the person in front of you in line is wearing a mask, or your friend or family member is wearing a mask, everyone is at lower risk… not a zero risk, but less of a risk.”
If Newtown responders are in confirmed contact with a COVID-19-positive or suspected patient, Caine said responders first dump all their PPE in appropriate receptacles at the receiving hospital, most frequently Danbury, and then once back in station, it’s Horn’s job to come out and apply the ozone machine to help return that rig to service.
Corps members who may have come in contact can shower and wash their uniforms at the ambulance headquarters to further protect their own family members from transmission — but isolating after any possible virus contact is virtually impossible.
“If we isolated every corps member during the height of the pandemic for 14 days, we would have nobody to answer the calls. But as long as we were protected, we just monitored ourselves and took reasonable measures after the call,” Greenspan said.
“We take our temperature every time we come into the station and do all the ongoing disinfecting; that’s part of this new normal,” Caine said. “We try to keep everybody as safe as possible. But this virus has a mind of its own, so all we can do is take every precaution possible.”
Caine said every Newtown resident and visitor can play a role in helping keep local emergency responders safe and available to respond if needed.
“My advice to everyone is to continue to wear masks and avoid anyone who is not wearing a mask, social distance, and wash your hands,” she said. “If you feel sick, stay home and get COVID testing done if you think it is possible you have been exposed — stay healthy, get enough sleep, and make good choices.”
Persevering Despite Unknowns
Caine said getting a flu shot is also more important now than ever.
“You don’t want to be worried about two respiratory viruses at the same time,” she said. “And if you are sick, with anything, don’t be afraid to call us or go to the hospital because we have all the protective measures in place to keep you safe.”
She said if COVID-19 infections locally come roaring back, it may just be half the normal group of volunteers left to answer calls.
“If it comes back, just like before, certain corps members [who may be more compromised or have compromised loved ones at home] will take a COVID leave, so it will be a core group of responders available,” Caine said.
“We managed then and we’ll manage it again if necessary. We worked longer hours than we would have liked, and people got tired, but we had a local Scout collecting gift cards and gift certificates for meals so we didn’t have to worry about cooking,” she said. “I know there were some nights I was so tired I just went home, ate a couple of cookies and fell into bed.”
Greenspan said the corps is strong, and she is still hoping that residents will entertain the idea of becoming EMT-certified and joining the corps, which is one of, if not the only, all-volunteer ambulance organizations left in Connecticut.
In the meantime, all of Newtown’s local EMTs will continue doing what they are doing, and hopefully will see each other through the virus situation without suffering an infection.
“We’re just very lucky,” Caine said. “We’re very, very diligent, but we can’t become complacent.”
Anyone interested in making a donation to the NVAC, or learning more about volunteering, including numerous opportunities that do not involve responding to calls or handling patients, visit newtown-ambulance.org.
Newtown Volunteer Ambulance Corps E-Board member and EMT Ryan Horn displays a FirstResponder Sterilizer, a pricey, high-tech disinfecting device obtained by the local emergency service to help prevent the retention of COVID-19 along with many other surface and airborne pathogens in their vehicles. —Bee Photo Voket
Using the FirstResponder Sterilizer, the Newtown Volunteer Ambulance Corps (NVAC) can ensure a disinfecting procedure that is faster and more thorough than sterilizing by hand, getting emergency vehicles on the road to their next calls faster. —Bee Photo, Voket