ATCEMS faces ‘crippling shortage’ as COVID-19 cases spike among medics

Austin

AUSTIN (KXAN) — A spike in positive COVID-19 cases among the city’s medics could put even more stress on emergency services in Austin.

According to the Austin EMS Association, the union that represents workers with Austin-Travis County EMS, one out of 15 medics either are positive with COVID-19 or are suspected to be positive, sidelining them from staffing emergency calls and putting an even further strain on the agency’s resources.

Selena Xie, president of AEMSA, said she’s concerned about staffing issues that were already low and how the omicron variant of COVID-19 is putting the agency in dire straits. ATCEMS leadership activated emergency plans that require healthy staff members to be on-call or on the clock “24 hours a day with no relief” and work “a record amount of mandatory overtime shifts.”

“Psychologists tell us that one key to resilience is rest,” Xie said. “I am very worried that our members are not going to feel entitled to fully disconnect from work now that they are not going to get that essential rest.”

KXAN spoke to one field medic who has been out more than eight days after testing positive for COVID-19.

“The fatigue worsened, the fever worsened over the last few days, and the body aches got really bad,” said Shannon Koesterer, clinical specialist representative for Austin EMS Association. “I was around a few patients that had just COVID-like symptoms over the past few weeks.”

Austin-Travis County EMS said 27 staffers have the virus, with eight other tests pending. The department said it has reached 20% of medics not being able to report for duty over the past two days. It has even put some of its administration back in the field to help close the gaps.

“Now it’s just every few minutes, I’m getting a text from a colleague, my friends from work, that are testing positive or starting to become symptomatic,” Koesterer said. “It does, I think, produce some anxiety for our members, especially now that we’re seeing everybody testing positive.”

In a memo to all EMS staff from Interim Chief Jasper Brown, he told staffers their workforce is moving its operational readiness level to “Level 3 – Increased Readiness.”

He said the biggest change for workers is they have to “remain prepared for emergency call back” and keep their phones on and “be ready to receive calls.”

“It’s challenging. We try not to bring people back into work; they have worked very hard already for two years. They’re tired, everybody’s tired,” said Interim Chief Brown. “It doesn’t affect our response time. Anytime we can’t staff a unit though, it affects everybody that’s here working. They have to work harder to keep our response times up.”

The Austin EMS Association said call volumes are spiking. The association said this is placing an even greater strain on a department that has a staffing deficit greater than any other in the city, with more medics leaving because of burnout, early retirement and pay.

“We did a workforce survey and indicated that 25% of our medics are looking to leave within the next year (of the existing workforce). So that’s pretty scary to think about,” Xie said.

On top of increased COVID-19 cases among staff, the agency’s academy isn’t producing enough qualified cadets. ATCEMS has hired just 16 qualified cadets out of a possible 30. That comes after the length of the academy was shortened by a month in an effort to get medics on the streets quicker.

“We are having serious problems with recruitment,” Xie said. “With well over a hundred openings, we aren’t going to get relief from the status quo. Attrition — including early retirement — is at an all-time high, and we anticipate even more openings in the coming months.”

Xie said before the pandemic, ATCEMS employed just 80% of what its budget allows, and that made it vulnerable to “this kind of crisis.”

Xie said city officials need to do something to drum up more cadets and keep the medics already employed.

“The city must act with urgency to recruit and retain the country’s best medics here, right now,” Xie said. “We’re not running out of time to change things. We are out of time.”

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