Transporting COVID-19 patients from rural Alaska

Published: Nov. 5, 2020 at 7:15 AM AKST
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - In the early stages of the pandemic, many rural villages cut off travel from the outside as a way to avoid outbreaks of COVID-19. Now, clusters have been documented in some of these communities. Medical transport services like LifeMed Alaska have been getting more calls to get some of those cases to the hospital.

One of the most repeated pieces of advice on avoiding transmission of the virus is to avoid tightly enclosed spaces. So how do you do that on a medical transport plane?

According to flight paramedic Lane Inman, the same exact way as patients with tuberculosis, meningitis, and other infectious diseases. What’s different with COVID-19 he said, are additional layers of PPE as well as the fact that this virus doesn’t have a vaccine.

Whether these patients end up in Anchorage or another urban area hospital depends on the severity according to Lewis. He said they first go to their base in Bethel with the patient. If the medical care isn’t sufficient, they are flown to their Anchorage hangar where similar techniques are used for ground transport to the hospital.

They dawn a full gown, an N-95 mask, a face shield, hairnet and gloves before seeing the patient. Onboard the transport, they set up a plastic curtain over the area for the patient in an effort to keep their droplets contained.

Clinical Director Eric Lewis said they’ve transported 35 known positive cases since the pandemic started. Members of LifeMed staff have tested positive with the virus, but Lewis said contact tracing showed them that they did not catch COVID-19 while they were on the job.“We usually receive a pretty good heads up when somebody is a person of suspicion based on their symptoms, respiratory, fever. Sometimes we’re lucky enough to already have a positive test on hand," he said.

However, they still get calls for injuries and such.

When those come in, they have to check to make sure the patient isn’t showing symptoms. Lewis said they have transported folks where they found out they were COVID-19 positive after they had already been transported.

While their mitigation techniques are showing signs of working, Lewis said these first responders are feeling the fatigue of the pandemic.

“That is what we signed up for. It is a high-stress environment but our typical means of going home and decompressing don’t exist,” he said.

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