With call volume increasing due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Cole County Commission has approved hiring 10 new full-time paramedics for Cole County Emergency Medical Services.
EMS Chief Matt Lindewirth told commissioners Tuesday that the number of calls EMS has had to respond to has risen every month since August compared to last year's numbers.
The worst could be November.
Cole County EMS responded to 937 calls in all of November 2019, Lindewirth said.
In just the first 10 days of this November, the service has responded to 421. If that rate continues, the total could reach 1,263 calls — 326 more than last November.
"From mid-March through mid-May, we saw a drastic downtick in total calls, by about 60 percent," Lindewirth said. "It's just the opposite now. Our staff that we have now have done a remarkable job but can't keep up with the current rate — not only due to the increase in calls but the complexity of the calls, the distance we have to go on calls and the time we have to spend on these calls."
Lindewirth said it takes 25-30 minutes to disinfect and prepare an ambulance after transporting someone with confirmed suspected COVID-19.
"We're starting to take more patients into the Kansas City and St. Louis areas, and that's five to six hours out, not including your decontamination time," he said.
Cole County EMS has gotten calls to do transfers to as far away as Illinois and Arkansas but has turned them down, Lindewirth said.
With the EMS system stressed, Lindewirth said, they have more "status zeroes" taking place — where no ambulances are available and outside agencies would be called in to take a medical call.
The starting salary for a Cole County paramedic is $51,000. With various benefits figured in, the 10 new hires could cost $800,000-$900,000 all together, Lindewirth said.
Part of the plan includes working with two county fire protection districts to build living quarters for ambulance staff to allow for more service. The Osage Fire Protection District Station in Wardsville and the Cole County Fire Protection District station at County Park would offer their locations, Lindewirth said.
The ambulance based in Wardsville would be a 24-hour truck. An ambulance already based at County Park would become a 24-hour truck, and the ambulance based at the Cole County Jail in downtown Jefferson City would become a 12-hour truck to respond to calls during peak times of service during the day and night.
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Including the work to build the additional living quarters, the total cost for the plan could top $1 million, but Lindewirth said, "it's the cheapest plan we were able to come up with."
"We expect to see additional COVID spikes after the holidays, and this time of the year is also the flu season, which typically is a busy time for us," he continued. "Once we start to see the COVID and call numbers going down — which from the information we're getting would probably be sometime in the spring at the earliest — through attrition we would just not replace these 10 positions. Paramedics leave an EMS service at a higher rate because there is more job opportunities for them since there remains a shortage of those persons across the country."
The service has had 16 staff members in quarantine at some point during the pandemic, he said. As of Tuesday, that was down to one.
The EMS department currently employs 23 paramedics and 20 emergency medical technicians along with five administrators, who are all paramedics. The service's staff is currently short one paramedic and one EMT from the number it is authorized to have.
Commissioners said they plan to work to get reimbursement for the cost of hiring the new paramedics through the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act.