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EMTs and the pandemic: Ambulance board discusses impact of virus on personnel

Jeremy D. Wells
Carter County Times

 Carter County Ambulance Service executive director Rick Loperfido told the ambulance board on Monday that COVID-19 has hit the service particularly hard over the last month. They’ve had a total of seven employees test positive for the virus from the Olive Hill location. Six of those individuals have completed their quarantine time and returned to work. But after they returned to work a seventh individual came forward to alert Loperfido they had tested positive as well. 

Loperfido told the board that part of the overtime costs for the previous month were a result of those infections, as other employees covered those shifts while their co-workers were off ill. With five of the individuals off for 10 days, and one off for 20 days before being released to return to work, the overtime needed to cover those shifts was significant. 

Even though employees take precautions, which include wearing masks, wiping down all ambulance surfaces with disinfectant after each run, and completing a wipe down and a fumigation disinfection after known COVID patient runs, they still work very closely with COVID infected individuals as part of their job, increasing their risk for infection. For instance, Loperfido explained, the service took three individuals to KDMC from local nursing homes just the previous evening who were known to have the virus. 

Despite being significantly impacted by the virus, he said, the service was not awarded any of the CARES money during the previous round of refunds to the county. Loperfido said he had spoken to judge executive Mike Malone about this, and the impact the virus was having on staffing and overtime, and Malone assured him he would look into having the service included when future CARES funding was released. 

He said the ambulance service was also having trouble getting other assistance from the state for safety supplies. While the costs of protective supplies like masks and gloves are going up due to increased demand, he said they can’t get any assistance from the state because they can still get items from their suppliers. 

“We’re the ones on the front lines,” Loperfido said, but they aren’t able to get any assistance. While they could use assistance with gloves, masks, and gowns, because of the rising prices, they’ve been told they won’t qualify for state assistance with supplies until they have exhausted their current supply and have trouble obtaining more from their suppliers. 

In other business Loperfido told the board the ambulance service still hasn’t gotten their air compressor for oxygen tanks repaired. He said he reached out to RIX, the company who manufactured their compressor, and was informed that there was a design flaw in the early shipments of the compressor that led to “premature drive end failure” and will require additional machining work to repair. 

“Basically, we got a lemon,” Loperfido said. 

He said while they are considering possible legal recourse, Kanawha County EMS continues to allow him to use their compressor to refill oxygen tanks. 

He also gave the board a report on the new ambulance, which is licensed and insured and in the process of being stocked with all necessary equipment. 

In related news, he gave an update on the GPS units to be installed in their ambulances. He said he has signed the agreement with the service and has seven units ready to be installed. These units will monitor vehicle location, idle time, speed, and other driving statistics. He also hopes to complete necessary training for drivers, documentation and other requirements before the end of the year. Employees are required to complete the training every two years. 

In other staffing news, Loperfido told the board they are down another medic, having let a second medic go while still seeking a medic to fill the first open position. 

Board president John Brooks also discussed the impact of COVID related issues, such as overtime, on the profit/loss statement. From January through November of this year, he said, the service was around $570,000 over their income in payroll costs alone. He said while they have endeavored to make the service profitable for the county, Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements do not come close to covering their costs for the transports of those patients. 

Loperfido noted that while the state will begin adding an additional $298.20 to each Medicaid run, a significant increase to the $110 they currently pay out and closer to the reimbursement from the federal government for Medicare, that still isn’t enough to cover the service’s payroll, fuel, and other costs for completing those runs, which can cost the service an additional $200 to $300. 

Loperfido also discussed the COVID-19 vaccine, noting that supplies may be available to vaccinate some of the services EMTs before this month ends. Not all EMTs want to take the vaccine, however, because of concerns with the safety and efficacy of the vaccine. 

In other action the board accepted the financial report and discussed staffing changes that may impact their decision to move billing in-house. 

Brooks said he was “not a fan of” moving back to third-party billing, a sentiment that board member Judy Roark echoed. 

“This is what we worked so hard (to bring in-house) before,” she said. 

Board member Kara Johnson said before they could make a decision, though, they needed to gather more information. 

“We need some facts. We need some numbers before making a decision,” Johnson said. 

This included information on the cost of having the billing done by a third party and the cost of training another person to help with in-house billing when current employees stepped down. 

The Emergency Ambulance Board will hold their next regular meeting on January 11, at 3 p.m. at the Carter County EMS Station in Grayson. All meetings are open to the public. 

Contact the writer at editor@cartercountytimes.com

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