During the pandemic, emergency medical workers step into new roles to keep us safe

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For emergency medical workers, every day is an unusual day. The atypical is typical. 

They respond to fires, car crashes, street fights, overdoses, and a host of other unexpected events. The one thing they had never done: test for communicable diseases and deliver vaccine during a pandemic.  

Most firefighters, said Aaron Tyerman, deputy chief of the Puget Sound Regional Fire Authority, had never delivered vaccines at all. 

  • Emergency management workers standing next to banner

“This has been very novel and extraordinary,” Tyerman said. “But when the governor came out and said we needed to vaccinate hundreds of thousands of people, we were one of the few disciplines with a ready army of willing and capable men and women.” 

Every year, King County’s Emergency Medical Services (EMS) providers work hard to keep us all safe. In this pandemic year, their role has been more important than ever. 

From the beginning, they have been at the forefront of King County’s efforts to control COVID-19. They have administered many, many thousands of COVID-19 tests. And they have played a crucial role in getting more than a million shots into the arms of King County residents. 

Here from ground zero 

This is National EMS Week, a fitting time to pay tribute to the region’s firefighters, emergency management technicians and paramedics, who have long been considered a national model.  

Since COVID-19 vaccines became available last winter, nearly 70 percent of King County residents 12 and older have received at least one dose and more than 50 percent are fully vaccinated. 

When it comes to vaccine delivery, that places King County in the top tier of counties nationwide. 

They were the first ones on the frontlines. It was a scary time, and it’s been exhausting. Our people have been amazing. We should have EMS Week every week.

Helen chatalas, king county ems

“Our EMS personnel have been instrumental in delivering vaccines,” said Deborah Schweikert, who manages Public Health – Seattle & King County’s mobile vaccination teams. “We could not have done this work without them.” 

EMS has also been instrumental in bringing testing to south King County, the area hardest hit by COVID-19. They are the “swabbers” at the County’s high-volume sites in Auburn, Federal Way and Tukwila.  

For King County EMS, the fight against COVID-19 began when first responders were called to the scene of the nation’s first deadly outbreak early last year at the Life Care Centers of Kirkland. 

“As King County became ground zero in the pandemic, they were the first ones out there on the front lines,” said Helen Chatalas, assistant director of King County Emergency Medical Services Division. “It was a scary time, and it’s been exhausting. Our people have been amazing. We should have EMS Week every week.” 

A “mainstay” in King County vaccination efforts 

When vaccines first became available, EMS staff were deployed to adult family homes across the county to vaccinate older county residents with disabilities – those most at risk of dying from the virus. 

“They were critical to doing the vaccinations in all the long-term care facilities,” said Dr. Mark Del Beccaro, who helped lead the development of Public Health’s COVID-19 testing and vaccination strategies. “They have been the mainstay of that effort, and it has been a complete success story.” 

Ninety-five percent of King County residents age 70 and above have received at least one dose and 90 percent are fully vaccinated. 

Many healthcare agencies have contributed to that achievement, and the county’s network of 120 fire departments has played a major role. 

The high-volume testing and vaccination sites in Auburn have been staffed entirely by EMS personnel, Tyerman said. They did so in addition to their normal 48-hour shifts. 

“Some of them were working 70-, 80- or 90-hour weeks to help out,” Tyerman said. 

“We’re used to working in strange places and delivering care under challenging circumstances,” he continued. “So this wasn’t a big stretch for us.” 

For that, the community thanks them. 

Originally published 5/19/2021