September 19, 2020

Coronavirus in New York: A paramedic’s diary

As a senior paramedic in New York City, Anthony Almojera is used to being close to death. But nothing in his 17-year career could have prepared him for the outbreak of coronavirus.

The state has now had more diagnosed cases of the virus than any single country. It has the grim distinction of being at the forefront of a global health crisis.

Anthony is now working 16-hour days to try to save people across the city, while supporting colleagues who fear for their lives and their families.

Anthony, a lieutenant paramedic and vice president of the Fire Department of New York’s Emergency Medical Services officers’ union, talked the BBC’s Alice Cuddy through what happened last Sunday – what he calls the toughest day of his career.

I got a pretty good night’s sleep considering all the calls going on the day before. A solid five hours. I get up and listen to the news in the shower. More Covid-19 but the world still seems intact. I have to get ready to be at work in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, at 06:00 for a 16-hour shift.

I put on my uniform, grab my radio and start the process of decontaminating my equipment. We have to wipe down all the radios, keys, trucks, bags and the rest of the gear. This virus can stay alive on everything. Nothing is safe – even your co-workers.

In wars you see the bullet, you know who your enemy is. This is a war with an invisible bullet – everyone you come into contact with is a bullet who could get you.

I log on that morning at 06:02. I’m able to go get a bite to eat at the bagel shop. I start to hear the radio get busy around 07:00. We have already had more than 1,500 calls since midnight. I get called for the assignment – a cardiac arrest.

As a lieutenant I go with the medic and emergency medical technician crews to help treat patients and provide resources as needed. These days there aren’t many resources as most days there are well over 6,500 calls.

New York City has the busiest emergency medical services (EMS) system in the world – with about 4,000 calls a day on average. Sometimes you get a spike like with a heatwave or a hurricane, but the busiest day before this was 9/11. That day, we had 6,400 calls but that wasn’t 6,400 patients – either you made it out or you didn’t. This is 9/11 call volume with patients every day.

Tomorrow: Six frontline workers in New York talk us through their day

We noticed the spike in cases around March 20. By the 22nd it was like a bomb.

When we saw this spike, the system wasn’t set up for it. We were like: ‘How are we going to do this with the resources we have?’ It was just a case of ‘let’s get going’.

Right now, about 20% of the EMS workforce is out sick. We have a lot of members who’ve contracted Covid-19, we have members who are in the ICU – I have two of them who are on ventilators – and we have over 700 people who are being monitored with the symptoms.

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