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Viruses Double Illness in EMSA Workers

OKLAHOMA CITY -- The flu and flu-like illnesses that have swept across the country this month have not spared emergency medical workers.

"We're susceptible to illness like everyone else," said Lara O'Leary, spokeswoman for the Emergency Medical Services Authority. "But luckily, due to our deep resources, we have plenty of medics to draw on."

Paramedics and emergency medical technicians have been calling in sick at double the usual number, said Brent Kinsey, EMSA director of operations.

The agency has covered the absences with part-time workers as well as regular employees working overtime. Some members of EMSA's management staff -- all of whom are licensed paramedics -- have also jumped in to help, Kinsey said.

All that in a month when EMSA expects to set a record with 5,400 runs, shattering a record of 5,003 set in December, primarily because of an ice storm.

Bugs boost workload

Ambulance crews have experienced a 21 percent increase in workload.

"That in and of itself is a huge increase," Kinsey said.

Viral illnesses caused by the norovirus and influenza are a big reason why.

Kinsey said that most people, even if they have used ambulance services more than once in a week, shouldn't notice any difference in response times. The average response time for an emergency remains close to six minutes for anyone living in the Oklahoma City metro area, Kinsey said.

EMSA officials stressed that medical workers and the ambulances they ride in will be clean and germ-free when they come to someone's aid.

Part of the job

O'Leary said medical workers often wear masks over their mouths and noses and diligently wash their hands and disinfect all surfaces inside the ambulance after each patient is transported somewhere.

"EMSA is the safety net for the community and we want to assure people that they can have complete confidence that, if you call us, you will have a healthy medic there to help you," O'Leary said. "We go to great lengths to make sure that happens."

Getting vaccinated and practicing good personal hygiene is the key to staying well, said Michael Murphy, director of the metropolitan and medical response system, who works closely with EMSA, area hospitals and the Health Department to monitor and maintain emergency medical worker's preparedness.

Cover your mouth when you cough and wash your hands often, he said.

Still, germs spread and emergency workers are some of the most susceptible to getting sick, Murphy said.

"That's something we (medical workers) accept as the price of giving care," he said.

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