HENDERSON — Two more residents of Vance County have died because of COVID-19, and the emergence of some COVID-19 cases among the county EMS staff has prompted officials to ask the state to send a “strike team” to help staff county ambulances.
The latest deaths, which raised the county’s toll from the virus to 65 people, were of a 77-year-old man who died on Dec. 15 and a 70-year-old man who died on Dec. 17, Granville-Vance Public Health officials reported.
Both were “in the community,” meaning they weren’t residents of area congregate-living facilities that are experiencing outbreaks of the virus.
Meanwhile, the COVID-19 cases at Vance EMS — the county government’s front-line medic and ambulance service — have forced officials and workers to scramble a bit to cover one of the service’s three shifts.
County Manager Jordan McMillen said three to four EMS employees had tested positive for the virus and several others had to quarantine because of possible exposure. Testing continues, and it’s possible that as more results come in more workers will test positive.
The call to the state for a strike team is an option that communities more typically have used when they’ve been hit by a natural disaster, like a hurricane, that stretches their in-house staff past its limits, McMillen said.
In such cases, “a crew or ambulance from somewhere will come in for 12 hours or so and help you out,” he said. “This is the first time someone’s had to use it for something other than a natural disaster, so we’re not sure how it could or would work.”
As of Friday afternoon, Vance officials didn’t know whether a strike team would arrive, but they were making preparations on the assumption one would. Communities that get such help have to pay for the meals and lodging of the workers who arrive to lend a hand, McMillen said.
“We realize that many other communities are dealing with similar challenges,” he said in regard to the uncertainty of getting a strike team.
The COVID cases at EMS emerged this week. A shift of medics spends 24 hours on duty, 24 hours off, another 24 hours on, another 24 off, then a third 24-hour stretch on duty followed by four days off.
McMillen said that just as firefighters have to go into burning buildings, medics have to go “into homes helping even those with known COVID-positive cases.”
“While we are taking all of the precautions with [personal protective equipment] and other means as we can, it is inevitable that it reaches our public safety staff as well,” he said.
To cover the load caused by the quarantines, workers on the county’s other two EMS shifts have filled in. Ambulance crews from Franklin and Warren counties helped out on Thursday by answering a few calls for their counterparts in Vance.
While the other Vance shifts have filled in, “we’d like to get them a little more rest,” McMillen said, acknowledging that there are limits to how hard the county can work its people. “Even if you had mutual aid from another county next door, it would allow us to get a little more rest for our guys and gals.”
Officials have also “reached out and are anticipating help” from off-duty firefighters if need be, as ambulance drivers, he said, adding that so far they haven’t had to use that option.
Word about the situation at county EMS first went out via a “blast email” from the Duke Healthcare Preparedness Coalition, a group that tries to coordinate resources in Vance, Granville, Warren, Caswell, Person and Durham counties.
County Emergency Operations Director Brian Short followed by “formally enter[ing] us in the state system requesting a strike team from around the state if [one] is available,” McMillen said.
With the quarantines and other measures, “a lot of what we’re trying to do is preventative,” McMillen said, adding that the medics filling in for their colleagues are “putting in a lot of hours” and that he’s proud of them.
The testing the county is doing of its staff includes everyone who works in the EMS department and everyone who works at the Vance County Fire Department, he added.
“COVID-19 has been such a challenge all along,” McMillen said. “Back in March, we had a very similar phone call. It turned out to be negative, but we learned our way back then and we learned to deal with it. It is going to be here, in some of our departments, and we’re learning to work through it.”
Contact Ray Gronberg at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 252-436-2850.