COVID cases worsen staffing shortage at Austin-Travis County EMS

A staffing shortage at Austin-Travis County EMS (ATCEMS) has been exacerbated by COVID-19 cases among paramedics.

"One in fifteen of our medics have COVID," said Selena Xie, president of the Austin EMS Association.

According to Xie, it’s the highest percentage they’ve seen during the pandemic, though some increase in numbers was expected when they started daily testing.

On Wednesday, EMS leadership activated emergency plans, asking medics to essentially be on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

"We basically have just unprecedented levels of overtime," said Xie.

Xie said ATCEMS has already been dealing with a staffing shortage. Their current cadet class, which will graduate in February, is about half the size of a normal year - a small drop in the bucket of more than 100 openings.

An upcoming holiday weekend is more cause for concern.

"It definitely is concerning for response times over New Year's," said Xie. "We're having trouble staffing our extra units that we usually have."

During a press conference on Tuesday, Austin Police Department Chief Joseph Chacon said that COVID-19 has been affecting his department as well, though he didn’t provide specific numbers.

"We’re seeing a surge right now because of the Omicron variant, though thankfully we don't have any officers that are hospitalized," said Chief Chacon. "But I am seeing an uptick in the number of positive cases." 

APD has also been dealing with a staffing shortage aside from coronavirus. However, Chief Chacon said they will be prepared for Friday.

"We will have contingencies in place to make sure that we're properly staffed for New Year’s Eve," he said.

To help ease the burden of paramedics, Xie recommended that those who believe they have COVID-19 call their primary doctor first. She also recommended purchasing a pulse oximeter to track oxygen levels at home. 

The good news– Xie said the recent COVID-19 wave has appeared to result in more mild symptoms.

"What we’re seeing with this wave is people’s oxygen levels are not dropping the same way they were with Delta and the other waves," said Xie. "So a lot of people can really self-monitor their symptoms and their oxygen levels to make sure they can safely stay home."

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