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WGLT's reporting on the coronavirus pandemic, which began in McLean County in March 2020.

Aging EMS Volunteers At Risk Themselves For COVID-19

Travis Wilson
Eric Stock
Travis Wilson is manager of the McLean County Area EMS System.

McLean County’s EMS leaders are battle-planning in case the coronavirus cuts into an already shorthanded volunteer workforce.

Historically, rural fire departments have relied on volunteers. But those volunteers are aging. In small towns, about one-third of them are 50 or over, according to the National Volunteer Fire Council, which has tracked the EMS staffing shortage.

And that’s a problem because older adults are at higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19.

“If you go out there and get this, one, you’re out of commission. And two, the ambulance can’t respond anymore,” said Travis Wilson, manager of the McLean County Area EMS System. “So what are our other options? We’re working through our processes to support those agencies that rely heavily on volunteers.”

Wilson cautions that this problem hasn’t happened yet. Another concern on the horizon are the paid EMTs (typically younger) which some smaller departments also rely on. Many of those paid providers split their time with multiple agencies across McLean County, Wilson said.

“Meaning if they become sick, they not only effect the response of one agency, but several agencies,” Wilson said.

To prepare, Wilson said the EMS system has turned to the “back of our playbook to help mitigate some of this.” The state is allowing those providers with expired licenses to be reactivated if they meet certain criteria. Agencies could also look at slightly different “response models,” Wilson said. For less serious calls they could consider sending just an ambulance, instead of both an ambulance and fire engine.

The risk of COVID-19 exposure is low as long as providers wear proper personal protective equipment (PPE), Wilson said. Right now agencies have reported they have enough PPE, but that obviously can change dependent on call volumes, he said. And the population in rural areas is lower, so the spread may be more limited, he said.

Still, if older volunteers are taken off the job, “the legacy of some of these agencies could be at risk,” Wilson said.

“With our agencies that have older providers, since there are not a whole lot of people waiting to fill those ranks, if those providers leave or they get sick and aren’t able to come back … They might retire from this,” Wilson said.

We’re living in unprecedented times when information changes by the minute. WGLT will continue to be here for you, keeping you up-to-date with the live, local and trusted news you need. Help ensure WGLT can continue with its in-depth and comprehensive COVID-19 coverage as the situation evolves by making a contribution.

Ryan Denham is the digital content director for WGLT.