EDITORIAL: Include EMS in Phase 1a

THERE WILL BE SCREW-UPS. There may be questionable choices too. Bad actors will prey on the misery of others. And that may not be the worst of it.

But we’ve done this before—trying to vaccinate practically everybody in the United States. Most of us didn’t experience or don’t remember the bad stuff associated with previous vaccines. And we didn’t suffer from some nasty diseases. So will anyone remember that emergency medical services (EMS) personnel were left off the list of the care providers slated to get the first round of the Covid-19 vaccine?

The members of the Columbia County EMS Advisory Board noticed the absence of EMS personnel on the list of people designated as eligible for Phase 1a. of the Covid vaccination roll-out. And last week Steven Meehan, secretary of the county EMS Advisory Board, sent a letter to Governor Cuomo and the commissioner of the state Department of Health, Dr. Howard Zucker, urging them to put the EMS workers on the list. (Mr. Meehan’s letter is in this issue.)

It’s not as if the local first responders, emergency medical technicians and paramedics are inflating their importance or the risks they face. When sick people go to the hospital by ambulance, the responders are shut inside a metal box with a closed door and a patient who may be contagious. EMS responders use personal protective equipment but the dangers are magnified as crews traverse a 600+ square-mile coverage area.

“We place ourselves at extraordinary risk of contracting the virus that is at least that of, if not more so than, our hospital-based healthcare colleagues,” Mr. Meehan wrote. But don’t take his word for it. The CDC guidelines show “Healthcare Personnel” as the highest priority group for the first doses of the vaccine. The government estimates there are 21 million of these workers nationwide. About 130 of them work in Columbia County. Can’t they all get vaccinated?

The answer becomes more complicated as the process unfolds. New York State will reportedly receive 170,000 doses of the first round of the Covid-19 vaccine doses. How many will get to Columbia County workers? It might depend in part whether we’re considered part of the Mid-Hudson (19,200 doses) or the Capital Region (7,850 doses).

Remember that the highest priority is “healthcare personnel,” but in New York State it is the “high-risk” healthcare personnel who are eligible for these very few doses. The governor’s website defines this as including “emergency room workers, ICU staff and pulmonary department staff.”

It looks like that roster of hospital workers is where the county EMS Advisory Board wants our responders listed. Mr. Meehan makes a compelling case and the state should agree immediately to include emergency medical responders. We can all understand why we must have healthy EMS teams in the middle of this pandemic.

But so far there is nowhere near enough vaccine to immunize the hospital workers who are already on the vaccine list. So who among the eligible workers would be willing to put off vaccination and risk death to protect an EMS responder?

Mr. Meehan does not raise this question or even suggest it. His letter reminds state officials of the importance EMS personnel play in the care of Covid-19 patients and all the other people who need emergency medical services in our rural county.

Despite the vaccine, we remain locked in a struggle with this virus. There are no easy answers. Parts of the response are improvised. Some decisions, like the exclusion of EMS responders from the Phase 1 a. vaccinations, need to be revisited as soon as possible. Do not be discouraged. We will win.

Stay home, please!

On another Covid-19 topic: Christmas, New Year’s Eve and Kwanzaa have been rescheduled. They are postponed to coincide with July 4. Right now we are struggling through the illness and death caused by Thanksgiving travel. The virus has had a great time as a result of people sure they were safe. They were not immune.

Sing a song for social distance. Wear a festive mask. Wash your hands and connect remotely whatever way you can.

Do that now and we can all have a helluva party marking Independence Day this summer.

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