As Hurricane Ida pounded the coast of New Orleans with downpours and 150-mile-per-hour winds on the afternoon of Aug. 29, New Orleans Emergency Medical Providers needed to reverse course after spending 18 months working across the metropolis at full pace battling COVID-19: staying put. For 13 hours and 41 minutes, because the storm’s worst shook their neighborhood, the employees hunkered down at their base, retaining themselves secure to be prepared to guard others from no matter got here subsequent. Nevertheless, the deluge of 9-1-1 calls didn’t come to a halt as EMS waited out the storm. So, after EMS staff got the go-ahead to hurry again into the town streets, they labored by way of the large queue that developed, placing in 12-hour-shift after 12-hour -shift to maintain up with the quantity of calls. Throughout the first day and a half alone, their staff responded to 323 calls.
New Orleans’ levee held, defending residents from the Gulf’s surging waters, however energy continues to be by way of a lot of the town amid hovering humidity and over 90°F warmth, which means that lots of of individuals a day stay in want of assist. Over the previous week, residents have referred to as in to report warmth exhaustion, asking for water or a spot to chill down, in addition to carbon monoxide poisoning—dizziness, shortness of breath, fainting—largely resulting from electrical mills, whose engines emit carbon monoxide and have to be used outdoor solely, improperly positioned indoors or close to home windows. Nonetheless others reached out looking for important well being care they might now not entry, akin to oxygen tanks, refrigerated insulin or IVs. Then there have been the extra typical emergency calls: coronary heart assaults, strokes, overdoses. Lastly, there have been the calls which have haunted New Orleans since winter 2020: flu-like signs, which as EMS has come to acknowledge, are more than likely circumstances of COVID-19.
For any first responder, particularly in a spot as weak to storms as Louisiana, climate disasters are a part of the job. September 2021, nevertheless, has introduced a novel problem to New Orleans’ EMS: coping with two disasters on the similar time, every of which threatens to exacerbate the opposite, and which have pushed the town’s most important emergency assets to the brink.
“I liken it to utilizing a small spoon to get water out of a sinking ship,” says Prashanth Balaraman, a 21-year-old emergency drugs technician (EMT). “Your entire EMS neighborhood, however particularly right here in New Orleans, has simply been form of struggling for a yr and a half, and are simply form of taking blow after blow. Regardless that we’ve stayed resilient and stayed upright and robust, it’s simply the very fact of the matter that we’re [an] undermanned and overworked occupation.”
Within the final two months, the New Orleans well being care system has been grappling with a surge of COVID-19 circumstances pushed by the Delta variant, which, for EMS staff, has meant an infinite stream of requires assist, hospitals inundated with sufferers and a heightened threat of contracting the virus themselves. (Balaraman, when he spoke to TIME, had simply returned to work per week earlier than the hurricane hit after recovering from COVID-19 regardless of being vaccinated). To deal with the twin problem of diminished employees and a surge in COVID-19 circumstances, New Orleans EMS put out a name in mid-August for reinforcements from the state and federal authorities, requesting further EMTs, medics and ambulances, finally receiving surge ambulances and groups from throughout the nation.
On the similar time, nevertheless, New Orleans EMS was stretched skinny even earlier than both disaster started. Jonathan Fourcade, a public info officer for New Orleans EMS, says that the infinite grind of being on the highway as an EMS employee—with little time for breaks, median pay of about $36,000 a yr, and excessive private security dangers— has led to persistent understaffing at New Orleans EMS, particularly amongst paramedics, who’ve essentially the most superior medical coaching. His largest fear, he says, has been the wait occasions after the general public name for assist.
“In fact, if any person calls they usually’re in cardiac arrest, or uncontrolled bleeding, or indicators of a stroke, or any form of very important emergency, in fact, they’re going to be on the highest of the listing,” says Fourcade. “However there are occasions when somebody calls 9-1-1 for somebody in cardiac arrest, and there’s no models obtainable. It occurs on daily basis. It occurred earlier than the hurricane. It occurred earlier than COVID.”
That mentioned, the hurricane and its aftermath have led to some sufferers ready even longer than regular for assist. EMS staff instructed TIME that whereas hospitals have gotten good at directing ambulances to places which have the assets wanted to take care of sufferers, some services have been compelled to cease taking new sufferers solely as they take care of misplaced energy and injury from the storm. EMS staff, although, can’t simply say “no” to these in dire want.
“There isn’t the choice to be like, ‘sorry, sir, I can’t take you to the hospital as a result of there’s flooding.’ It’s like, ‘Okay, let me strive to determine which path I can presumably take to get them there,’” Alexia Archaga, a 26-year-old paramedic. “There’s been so many occasions the place we’ve simply needed to determine it out.”
On the similar time, EMS staff are grappling with the worry that the advert hoc measures wanted to assist their neighborhood survive the storm are contributing to the continuing pandemic. All through the storm’s aftermath, sick and displaced folks have been compelled to collect at cooling stations, mates’ houses and emergency rooms—locations that supply electrical energy, cool air and water, however enhance the chance that SARS-CoV-2 retains spreading, due to the shut quarters and variety of folks coming in and going out. As Dr. Emily Nichols, director of the Louisiana EMS explains it, the virus is rarely removed from emergency responders’ minds, however they need to take care of essentially the most quick disaster at hand—even when which means a heightened threat of enabling the virus to maintain spreading. “We all know that social distancing helps stop the unfold of COVID, however we all know that there are different life or demise issues to take care of concurrently,” says Nichols. “We’re actually making an attempt to only proceed that messaging: Don’t overlook that there’s nonetheless a pandemic.”