A black and white photo of a woman smiling at the camera
“You’re seeing EMS agencies all over the country start community health programs.”

Austin canceled its annual South by Southwest festivals on March 7. So much of the city’s revenue comes from SXSW, including safety budgets. Now, looking back at other big events like Mardi Gras that weren’t canceled, we know canceling was the right decision. It helped buy Austin some time.

COVID calls make up about a quarter to a third of our department’s calls every day. If there’s any COVID symptom, the call gets triaged over to the paramedic group for an advanced screening. If the person’s condition is stable, the paramedic will direct the patient to a public testing site. Then they don’t go to the hospital and come into contact with nurses, and with patients who are immunocompromised.

COVID-19 has changed the way EMS personnel have to protect ourselves, because there are a lot of asymptomatic carriers. Before, our minimum PPE was just gloves. Now our minimum PPE are gloves, N95 masks and eye protection. If there’s any sign of COVID-19—fever, cough, recent travel—we add a gown and a second pair of gloves. If we’re doing anything that could aerosolize particles, like a nebulized treatment or CPAP or intubation, then we’re wearing a full Tyvek suit and face shield.

We go through uniform changes and showers throughout each shift. We check our own temperatures twice a day. We decontaminate the ambulance with a spray machine that neutralizes any bacteria or virus.

The Austin EMS is fortunate to have union advocacy and enough PPE to keep our medics safe. Other cities have talked about how to convert trash bags into gowns. We’ve been pushing our department to get reusable respirators, so that we never have to worry about running out.

Low wages, poverty, fast food and expensive health care have created a population that relies on EMS as primary care. That’s why you’re seeing EMS agencies all over the country start up community health programs, to use resources wisely. Because we’re the infectious disease response unit in central Texas, EMS has been swabbing entire nursing homes. When COVID-19 first started and people were getting swab-tests at home, our medics were the ones going to all those houses. EMS is not just “pre-hospital.” It’s part of a continuum of medical care.

Selena Xie ’09, president, Austin (Texas) EMS Association