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Los Angeles ambulance ride-along shows the pandemic’s grueling toll on EMTs

EMT Sadi Pope takes pride in her job, but the recent Covid-19 surge in Los Angeles County has made for some grueling 10-hour shifts.

The mother of three and former stay-at-home mom has been running an ambulance for the last six months, but the call volume has grown so much in this latest wave of the coronavirus pandemic that “we’re running and running” all day now, she said.

“A few months ago, there would be times where we’d sit for a couple hours just waiting for a call in our area, but now … we’re lucky if we sit for a half an hour,” she said.

To understand how Los Angeles’ crushing Covid-19 surge has impacted first-responders, CNN spent a day with EMTs and at the emergency communication hub for Care Ambulance, the largest emergency ambulance service in Southern California. Over nearly eight hours, the group of hard-working yet harried workers tried to handle a large volume of calls and brought sick patients to hospitals so full that the patients were left waiting for hours for an available bed.

Los Angeles has seen an overwhelming increase in coronavirus infections, hospitalizations and deaths since November in what the county supervisor called a “human disaster.”

On Sunday, the Department of Public Health reported 14,482 new cases and 166 new deaths. There are 7,964 people currently hospitalized with Covid-19 in the county, and 22% of those are in the ICU.

The surge is so severe that ambulance crews in Los Angeles County have been told not to take patients who have little chance of survival.

The contagious virus has radically changed their jobs, as the organization says it now daily responds to about 800 emergency calls a day and transports about 580 patients to emergency departments.

Pope’s partner on the job, Kyle Dojillo, has been an EMT for about a year, and he said the surge recently has been notable.

“Every time I come back to work every week, it just gets worse and worse,” he said.

Hours waiting for a bed

Across LA, beds in the intensive care unit are hard to find, and some EMTs say they’ve waited outside hospitals with patients for six to eight hours.

During CNN’s time with EMTs on Thursday, a new 911 call came in for a Covid 19-positive patient. The EMTs quickly put on full personal protective equipment, rushed to the scene and then loaded the patient on a gurney into the ambulance.

They raced to a nearby hospital but were then met with a backlog. Eight Care ambulances were already standing by with other patients, said ambulance supervisor Carolyn Carraway.

The patient had to wait more than three hours before getting a hospital bed, Care Ambulance later told CNN.

During those long waits, Carraway said, she often checks in with food or drinks to keep her staff going.

“I’m constantly talking to them, checking in on them,” she said. “My truck is full of snacks and Gatorades just to help get them through the day.”

Surrounded by death and sickness, the work has worn on EMT Matt Herman.

“A lot of times I’m just exhausted and I go straight home, eat dinner, and go to bed,” he said. “It’s doing everything I can do to get my rest, eat as much as I can and then try to stay healthy so I can keep going.”

Transporting so many Covid-19-positive patients of course puts their own health at risk as well. In August, a 32-year-old EMT for Care Ambulance died after a month-long battle with the virus. The company is in the midst of vaccinating frontline personnel, but the risk remains.

Hours into her shift, Pope had transported another patient with Covid-19, she later told CNN.

She sprayed down the inside of her ambulance with disinfectant — a reminder of the dangers of her vital work.

“I wasn’t expecting anything like this, but yeah (disinfecting is) a big deal because I’m with these patients all day, and then I go home to my kids,” she said, “so I’m just definitely trying to be aware of the people around me and be smart about what I’m doing.”

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