Wayne County emergency medical technicians are seeing an uptick in COVID-19 emergencies, and the cases are worse than EMTs have witnessed in recent months.

“What we see is people in severe respiratory distress, low blood pressures, high heart rates, really high fevers, so when I talk about the acuity of the patients, they’re simply just a lot sicker than what we’ve seen in the past,” said David Cuddeback, Wayne County Emergency Medical Services director.

Between 15% to 27% of the 50 to 60 daily calls for service are COVID-19 related, he said.

“A lot of what we’re seeing is sick calls and respiratory distress,” Cuddeback said. “Those are the two categories we’re seeing our COVID patients fall under.”

Hospital emergency rooms are also filling up, he said.

“The emergency department has a lot of very sick patients right now,” he said. “As all the data is showing, the emergency department is extremely busy, the (intensive care units) are extremely busy, the COVID floors are really busy.”

To ensure that patients have a bed when they arrive at the hospital, Cuddeback said his staff helps nurses clean rooms and get them ready for patients.

“Our staff is going to jump in there, clean the room, clean the bed and get a patient in there,” Cuddeback said.

Overall, EMS call volume has increased 26% since March of 2020, said Joel Gillie, Wayne County public affairs director.

“And our staff has that degree of fatigue just like anybody else in health care, but they’re just pushing forward,” Cuddeback said. “They have positive attitudes (and) are really dedicated towards the community.”

They also never know how precarious a situation might be when they arrive on the scene.

“We don’t always know that a person has COVID,” he said. “We’re going to wear our surgical mask in there, but we don’t always have an N-95 (mask) on because we may not know.

“I myself contracted it on a call, as well, and I can tell you I’ve never been so sick in my life. My background is in biology, and I’m still trying to figure out how this happened, but I got very sick from a call.”

Cuddeback said he’s also had staff test positive for the virus, and what keeps him up at night is the thought he might lose them.

Then there’s another variable — family members.

“What if we brought it home to our family?” Cuddeback said. “What if they got sick doing what they do and then they carried it home to their family member and the family member had a bad outcome in this. It’s a true real-deal thing.”

And depending on the emergency, sometimes EMTs spend a long time inside a home around people who may be infected.

“We’re touching things in the home,” he said. “We’re spending prolonged periods of time in the home if it’s a cardiac arrest case. Everybody in health care is facing this, but we’re one of the few populations going into people’s homes.”

Cuddeback said in addition to having an overall call volume increase, he and his staff are seeing younger patients and even some pediatric patients who are really sick with the virus.

And the patients in the worst shape are not vaccinated.

“One common theme we hear out of them is I wish I had been vaccinated,” he said. “We all have had to become students of COVID, and as a student of COVID and as somebody that experienced it myself, people when they get very sick from COVID in the unvaccinated population, they get very sick.”

When it comes to employee vaccinations, Cuddeback said between 50% to 60% of the 108 Wayne County Emergency Medical Services staff are vaccinated.

But that percentage is increasing.

“What we’re seeing right now is because of that high acuity patient, that really high degree of illness in the unvaccinated patients, is a lot of our staff that was unvaccinated are now saying this is what I need to do,” Cuddeback said.

Gillie said vaccinations are highly encouraged for Wayne County staff, but there’s no requirement.

“The county’s position so far has been to leave that decision up to the individual employee,” Gillie said. “But if we can incentivize it, then that would be a positive thing, but right now it’s been strictly voluntary.”

Cuddeback wants to change how people look at EMS.

“EMS has always been a reactive public safety entity, and we don’t want EMS to be a reactive public safety entity anymore,” Cuddeback said. “It can’t. We want to be a proactive entity in our community, and what does that mean? It means being part of the vaccine clinics. It means going and doing public education programs.

“What we want the public to know is we care so much about their health and well-being. To hear a person who’s in ICU who ultimately gets on a ventilator and who ultimately passes away, to hear them say, ‘I wish I had just received a vaccine,’ I think there’s a lot in that. We’re going to continue to be active in this process. We hope that the incidents of COVID decrease. We plan for it to get worse, and if it gets worse, EMS will continue to be here.”