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Summit County’s first responders say they’ve adjusted as they prepare for peak of cases

Park Record file photo.
Carolyn Webber Alder/Park Record

Summit County’s first responders are adapting in this time of crisis, taking measures to protect themselves, preserve capacity in the health care system and keep the community safe.

And while much has changed during the COVID-19 pandemic, Park City Fire Chief Paul Hewitt says the core mission remains the same.

“We’re there,” Hewitt said. “We’ll be there and ready to make things better.”

Representatives from the Park City Fire District, the Summit County Sheriff’s Office and the area’s emergency medical services say they have enough personal protective equipment – like masks, gloves and gowns – for the time being. But they’re cognizant of national shortages and are changing tactics to use the valuable supplies responsibly as the peak of local cases is expected to hit in a matter of days.

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Sheriff’s Lt. Andrew Wright said Sheriff Justin Martinez has advised deputies to use common sense and to not send more resources than necessary to a call, even though that limits the philosophy of community policing the sheriff prefers, which relies on face-to-face interaction with community members.

“We’re doing everything we can to limit our interaction, but of course there are those cases we have to show up, we have to get right in the middle of things,” Wright said. “If we can limit it to two deputies at one scene, that’s all the better because, again, we’re limiting that interaction with people.”

That’s a strategy Summit County Emergency Medical Services has adopted as well, according to Administrative Battalion Chief Ashley Lewis, who oversees the service operated by the Fire District. Lewis reported that paramedics are trying to accomplish as much as they can from a distance while reducing the number of paramedics on scene and times when personnel don full personal protective equipment.

As the outbreak approached, Hewitt said, Park City Fire personnel were quick to develop new policies aimed at reducing exposure to the virus.

Hewitt said the first two objectives he told his staff were, first and foremost, to make sure they are not transporting the disease around the county – becoming a vector of spread – and secondly, to stay healthy themselves. That means cleaning and sanitizing regularly, among other measures.

“The public needs to know that, if they need us, we’ll show up and we won’t exacerbate the problem,” Hewitt said. “They should never be afraid of seeing our men and women.”

Lewis said that Summit County EMS is well-stocked with protective equipment, but that many things are on backorder and it’s been hard to procure equipment like surgical masks.

“It’s very difficult to find and secure supplies,” Lewis said. “(We’re doing) anything we can to secure the supplies needed to do our job and also have resources available to help community members in their time of need.”

He said costs have remained relatively constant, though he has seen some vendors attempt to gouge prices.

First responders are readying themselves for the peak of new cases that could come within days. Summit County Health Director Rich Bullough said April 2 that modeling at that time predicted a peak around April 16. Lewis said he has to balance his department’s anticipated needs against the requirements of other, more rural agencies that also need safety equipment. And while Summit County EMS could store a surplus, he doesn’t want to take more than their fair share.

The effort to reduce the use of personal protective equipment begins with dispatchers, who now ask every caller to describe any medical symptoms to gauge the risk that emergency personnel will encounter COVID-19. And since there is little to be done for those with the disease unless their symptoms worsen to the point of requiring hospitalization, Lewis said paramedics are often in the position of offering comfort to patients.

“Sometimes people, if they’ve been confirmed with the virus, they just need a little reassurance. Maybe they’re having a cough or some sort of episode and they just need the reassurance of an evaluation saying, ‘Hey, you’re OK,’” Lewis said. “But if we can release you, that’s what we want to do because there’s a lot more pressure to (emergency rooms).”

Training Battalion Chief Peter Emery said the Fire District is working closely with local health care providers and making sure to keep the system’s capacity in mind when determining a patient’s care.

“Patients call us and, after discussions with us, they end up staying at home because the hospitals, it’s a certain criteria you have to have before they’ll have you come in,” Emery said. “That’s not to say that they’re overflowing right now, but we’re trying to limit that impact on the hospitals as well. … It’s unique to say the least.”

Last weekend, Hewitt said his team learned of the first case from within their ranks, a paramedic who tested positive for COVID-19 and who is now on his way to recovery.

Emery said the man had been away on vacation and that, because of the timing of the incident, the threat to the public was extremely limited. The department isolated and tested the staff that had worked directly with the paramedic and the tests came back negative.

Hewitt and Emery said morale remains high.

“It’s definitely an eerie environment, but it’s also an eerie environment if you’re in a house fire or a business fire,” Hewitt said.

“The guys are here to serve,” Emery added. “This is what we signed up for.”


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