COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - COVID-19 is putting a strain on an already stretched EMS workforce in South Carolina.
Friday, the Department of Health and Environmental Control sent WIS the following statement in response to questions on EMS staffing:
“We’re aware that all first responder agencies are experiencing personnel shortages due to COVID-19-related absences; however, to date, DHEC hasn’t received notice of a reduction in services in any area as a result of these absences. At this time, haven’t had to fill any mutual aid requests for additional EMT resources in any region.
EMTs and paramedics voluntarily report COVID-19-related illness, so we only have a rough estimate. Of approximately 11,159 licensed EMS personnel, DHEC has received reports of approximately 250 individuals who have voluntarily reported having been quarantined or isolated."
EMS departments across the state were already understaffed. A 2018 report published by the state EMS Association and the SC Office for Health Care Workforce tallied 882 vacancies for full- and part-time EMTs, Advanced EMTs, and Paramedics.
It said 71.3% of responding agencies listed their street staff levels as “less than optimal.”
Gerald Blanchard is the president-elect of the association and heads the Kershaw County EMS department. He said the reduced staff could translate to slower response times.
"You can look at the trends. Counties that have had higher cases of COVID-19 have certainly had a greater impact on their workforce. We, in Kershaw County, we've had relatively low numbers, speaking. However, we have even been impacted by several people go out on quarantine orders," he said.
The workforce quarantines come as EMS departments statewide are reporting more responses to opioid overdoses.
In July, medical professionals told lawmakers calls for suspected overdoses are up 52%.
“With COVID, we have seen an increase, even locally. Unfortunately, we’ve seen an increase in opioid deaths. Yes, the opioid crisis is very strong, I believe that some of the stressors have come about from COVID-19, have increased those numbers,” Blanchard said.
He said other factors impacting staffing are pay rates, hours, and culture.
He said he is looking to ramp up recruitment and retention, with an eye on hiring more minority EMS personnel to diversify.