NEW YORK – When NYC-area paramedic Mike Mena gets home from work, he immediately takes off his uniform, stays out of the rooms his girlfriend is in and touches as little as possible. He’s mindful of steering clear from anything she touches, even the silverware she may need to use and no longer sleeps beside her in bed.
Instead, he has set up shop in a glass-enclosed sunroom, because he’s terrified of her being exposed to the germs he may have on him from a long day of COVID-19 call after COVID-19 call.
“On an average day in the New York City 911 system, you will see around 3,000 to 4,300 assignments, or calls a day throughout all the five Boroughs. The busiest day of the year usually is New Year’s Eve where we see about 5,000 assignments,” said Mena. “We did more calls last Tuesday than we did on 9/11. We did about 6,200 calls and now we’re about 7,000 calls a day. To put it in perspective, in the last week, we’ve done about 48,000 calls, almost 50,000 calls. That’s a little less than half Boston EMS does in a year.”
Mena said most people calling are calling for symptoms related to COVID-19. Flu-like symptoms that include shortness of breath, high fevers, loss of smell and taste, dry coughs and body aches. His agency is one of the lucky ones in that they do have plenty of personal protective equipment—for now—but the fact that they’re constantly exposed to the virus is never far from their minds. They treat most calls, unless it’s something like a car accident, as though the patient could have been exposed. There’s no way to truly know when they arrive because he said the virus does not discriminate.
Watch Mena’s extended interview below
“I’ve never seen anything like it, pretty terrifying to be fair. The age spectrum is huge, you see elderly patients that everybody is concerned about but then you have 38-year-olds, 45-year-olds, people from all age groups, all backgrounds, all races, ethnicities, all of them pretty critically ill. And then you have people waiting to come into the ER that they think they have COVID-19, it’s just neverending, it’s an onslaught,” said Mena. “It does not care, it has no feelings, it has no emotions, you can’t bargain with it, it doesn’t care who you are. There are some people who are going to get sicker than others, but that being said, some people have no past, they’re in the prime of their lives, the best condition they could possibly be in and they’re on a ventilator, they’re intubated in the ICU.”
Mena said in the decade he’s been working on an ambulance in some capacity, he’s never seen anything like this. On a busy day, it can take anywhere from 20 to 40 minutes to transfer a patient he’s picked up to the ER. Now, there are days he waits up to an hour and a half to get a nurse who has a moment to treat the patient.
“I have been around for the swine flu pandemic, I was working in New York City during the Ebola outbreak, I have never seen the things I am seeing in the ERs, the amount of patients, the amount of critically ill patients coming in waves after waves,” said Mena. “One of the hospitals I go to, it’s like the sixth busiest hospital in the United States, their trauma room is inundated with 9 to 12 people on ventilators, all sedated, all intubated receiving basically ICU care in the ER because there’s no room for them upstairs.”
He said the scariest part is how quickly a patient with the virus can go downhill.
“You have patients, ‘I was feverish two days ago and now I’m barely getting oxygen in my lungs’,” said Mena. “Normal oxygen saturation levels for the everyday healthy person is between 94 percent and 100 percent,” said Mena. “These are folks with no serious past medical histories with just flu-like symptoms with oxygen saturation levels in the 70s, 60 percent, they’re barely conscious using every physical aspect of their being to get a breath in and breathe. It’s horrifying.”
So horrifying that the United States has now lost more people to coronavirus than died in the 9/11 attacks at the World Trade Center-- with New York at the epicenter.
“This isn’t business as usual; NYC is the economic powerhouse of the country. All of this is shut down, Times Square is empty, there isn’t a soul walking the streets of NYC right now. I’ve never seen the city this empty.”
But despite the dire circumstances, there are plenty of people who are doing well. Mena said only 20 percent of those people who contract the virus are getting hospitalized, and roughly less than 5 percent are in the ICU.
“There are people that are recovering,” said Mena. “You should be scared, this is not business as usual, but one of the good things, people are recovering, some people aren’t getting as sick, some people get it and stay home for a week or two and then go back to work and they’re fine.”
He said other good things to come out of the crisis are the ways New Yorkers—and Americans—are banding together.
“We’re all pitching in, we have EMTs and Paramedics from Colorado that drove here, there’s no plane you can fit an ambulance in, this isn’t the military, we can’t air drop in, these folks drove here in ambulances to help,” said Mena. “We have restaurants that aren’t doing great financially because they’re not open, but they’re donating mountains of food to ER staff. It kind of reminds me of 9/11, people just coming together doing the best they can with the situation at hand, to help each other.”
But, he said, he cannot stress enough—we do not want Florida to end up like New York.
“I can’t stress enough the amount of people I’ve seen critically ill. Take this seriously. You may not get sick, you may get a little sick, hopefully that’s the worst is it to you, but there is someone you know, someone in your family, someone you care about that this disease can absolutely kill without a doubt. It would be in your best interest if any of these people matter to you that you take the guidelines recommended by the local government seriously, stay home if you can, wash your hands, do everything you can to avoid being in large crowds. Just take it seriously, this is no joke.”
He added everyone should help out as much as they can.
“This will pass but the only way this will pass is if we work together and do what we can to flatten the curve and stop the spread.”