12 Fraught Hours With E.M.T.s in a City Under Siege

12 Fraught Hours With E.M.T.s in a City Under Siege

Which, in a sense, it is.

With colossal public housing projects and families crammed into sagging, multiunit homes, Paterson is a densely populated city of nearly 148,000. These days, the city’s ambulance call volume, per capita, is as great as New York City’s, asserted Brian J. McDermott, the exhausted chief of the Fire Department.

There were 620 confirmed cases of coronavirus infection in Paterson as of Thursday afternoon. The emergency department at St. Joseph’s University Medical Center, the local hospital, is being hammered with patients; the 650-bed facility, currently handling about 100 Covid-19 cases, is searching for outside locations for more beds. Despite the efforts of the E.M.T.s to keep moderately ill people at home, nearly 80 percent of ambulance calls for suspected coronavirus have been serious enough to require transportation to the hospital.

Desperate to be seen by a doctor, panicked people are exaggerating symptoms, determined to get taken to St. Joe’s, as the hospital is widely known. But also in this majority immigrant, Latino and African-American city, many callers worry that if they have the virus, the ambulance won’t show up. Instead, some people give dispatchers symptoms for fake complaints.

A few weeks ago, deceived by dispatch calls for “leg pain” and “sick person,” E.M.T.s ran into homes wearing only masks and gloves. Now growing numbers of them are sick or in quarantine.

The Paterson Fire Department allowed New York Times journalists to accompany a 12-hour shift of E.M.T. crews outfitted specifically to respond to potential Covid-19 cases. The grueling day offered a glimpse into the chaotic, risk-filled lives of emergency workers who are reaching directly into the jaws of the pandemic.

“I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I’d almost rather go to a fire call,” said Brian Hirschmanner, a firefighter and E.M.T. “At least you can see what you’re fighting. And it eventually goes out.”

On a chilly spring morning, nine E.M.T.s assigned for the day to answer only possible coronavirus calls reported for duty in an inflated tent in front of the Lakeview Firehouse. The tent is a designated decon — decontaminated zone — where freshly sterilized hazmat gear is stored.


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