HAVERHILL — They’ve been interacting with coronavirus patients for months, covered in personal protective equipment but always wondering if this call might be the time that something goes wrong and they bring COVID-19 home to their loved ones.
For many emergency medical services personnel and other first responders, finally getting the first dose of the COVID vaccine is a tiny bit of relief that could not have come soon enough.
“It’s a breath of fresh air,” said Trinity EMS Assistant Operations Manager Rob DeFlumeri. “We’ve been in the pandemic since March, so a good nine months. This is the first step forward to returning to some sort of normalcy.”
EMTs and paramedics respond to calls with coronavirus patients on a daily basis, and everyone has to be considered a potential exposure of the virus from a precautionary standpoint, DeFlumeri said. In addition to the gloves, masks, goggles, face shields and gowns, the vaccination is an extra layer of protection that will give EMS professionals a bit more mental freedom when they walk into a scene, he said.
This week, Trinity EMS is holding three days of vaccination clinics for first responders at DiBurro’s Function Facility. Over the course of Monday, Tuesday and Thursday, a total of 500 first doses of the Moderna coronavirus vaccine will be administered to Trinity employees and any other first responders in the region eligible to receive the vaccine under the state’s phase guidelines.
Trinity EMS Director of Clinical Services Kirk Brigham said the second doses will arrive over the next week and all first responders that received the first dose this week will return to DiBurro’s Feb.16-18 for the second portion. He said Trinity’s clinics are conducted in conjunction with Steward Health Care and overseen by Trinity EMS Medical Director Dr. Leewood Lane.
Brigham said Trinity employees are also able to be vaccinated through a number of partners, including Lowell General Hospital, D’Youville Life & Wellness Community in Lowell, Whittier Rehabilitation Hospital and the Lowell and Haverhill boards of health, due to contracts with both cities.
Brigham, a longtime EMS professional, said COVID has changed everything for first responders, from the approach to patient care to decontamination and cleaning procedures.
“I’ve been doing this for 25 years, and I have spent more time in the last 10 months in an N95 respirator than I have in the previous 23 years,” he said.
It has also changed many things personally, as well, Brigham said. For instance, he said he has not seen some family members throughout the duration of the pandemic due to their fear of catching COVID from him, even though out of necessity he is much more strict about cleanliness and precautions than most people.
Ian Wallace, of Lowell, a Trinity EMT working primarily in Lowell and Chelmsford, said accidentally bringing COVID home is a constant worry, especially as many municipalities try to limit police and firefighter exposure to the virus and rely more on EMTs to handle medical calls. He said he was excited to get the vaccine Tuesday.
“It’s definitely a glimmer of hope, where hopefully things will go back to normal and we can treat patients how we have been for the majority of my career as an EMT, and we don’t have to be going into every call as, is this going to be the one that I bring home to my family,” Wallace said.
While he has never tested positive for coronavirus, he said he has had to quarantine for a total of about five weeks during the pandemic when people close to him got the virus in March and December. Wallace said he was grateful for Trinity providing up to 80 hours of pay during those absences.
Trinity EMS Co-Owner & President John Chemaly said his company has been fortunate to lose only about 10% of its staff each week due to COVID-related absences and quarantines, when other ambulance companies have been hit much harder.
Still, it has caused both clinical and financial strain, because it means many overtime hours to fill shifts to make sure all of Trinity’s 911 contracts are covered, he said. Chemaly said they’re anxious for the second dose of the vaccine to arrive.
“This is going to help relieve our staffing issues and we’ll be able to put more trucks on the road,” he said.
The Tuesday vaccination clinic drew a wide variety of first responders from other organizations and governmental agencies, from area fire departments to federal police with the U.S. Marshals Service.
Christine Chen and Maya Mohanty, both EMTs with Lowell-based Pulse EMS and Chelmsford residents, first started working in the profession over the summer. While they haven’t experienced what it’s like to work as EMTs outside of the pandemic, they said they’re adjusted to all of the precautions and are doing their part to help.
The more people that get the vaccine, “the faster we can move on from this pandemic,” Mohanty said.
Kathy Monaghan, of Lowell, a nurse who retired from Lowell General Hospital in July, volunteered to help administer the vaccinations.
She said the vaccine is a bit of hope for all of her former coworkers and the first responders who have been dealing with the pandemic since March.
“I’m very excited that hopefully both them and all of the frontliners can get back to a relatively normal life — and the rest of us,” Monaghan said.