(TEANECK, N.J.) — In Teaneck, New Jersey, volunteer EMTs are constantly answering potential and confirmed COVID-19 calls, sometimes wearing mechanics overalls to protect themselves from being exposed.
“We have never seen anything like this before ever in our history,” said Jacob Finkelstein, captain of Teaneck Volunteer Ambulatory Corps. “We’ve been around for a long time since 1939. I’ve heard from members who’ve been here through other, similar, situations through AIDS, through SARS. Nothing compares to what we are seeing now in Teaneck.”
ABC News spent a few hours with the Teaneck Volunteer Ambulatory Corps as its members responded to calls in the community.
On Monday, EMTs responded to an elderly woman with a suspected case of COVID-19 who died before they arrived; a man in his 70s with a high fever and cough whose family said he’d tested positive for the virus but had been sent home; and two more older men who were taken to the hospital with fevers.
In March, Mohammed Hameeduddin, the mayor of Teaneck, called the town “ground zero” for the infections in the state.
At that time, he told ABC News that he had asked the town’s more than 41,000 residents to self-quarantine and only leave their homes for food and medicine. Schools, municipal buildings, parks and other places people could congregate were also closed.
From suiting up in full personal protective equipment, commonly known as PPE, to decontaminating their ambulances after a call, members of the Teaneck Volunteer Ambulatory Corps said they treated every emergency 911 call as a potential COVID-19 case.
The team said the city had seen at least 500 confirmed cases of coronavirus and at least 20 deaths.
They also said they were receiving double the amount of calls these days — an average of 25 a day — with less than half of their staff on duty.
Eric Orgen, a member of the corps since 1994, said normally the volunteer group had about 120 active members. The team is currently down to about 40 to 50.
Orgen said some members, who ranged in age from 15 to 75, were considered high risk or had family members who were high risk. These members helped in other ways, including holding a drive last week to collect food and equipment.
Orgen said that some of the volunteer EMTs had even tested positive for coronavirus after being exposed while responding to calls.
The EMTs wear full PPE when they respond to calls. Finkelstein, however, said some PPE items like gowns were not available. Members even turned to wearing mechanics overalls to protect themselves.
“We’ve had to come up with some creative solutions to fill in for those missing items,” said Finkelstein, who noted that other volunteer EMT squads had been forced to stop answering calls due to the pandemic.
Orgen had worked with the group since 1994 and recently came out of retirement to help. He said his wife was a pharmacist and both worried about bringing the virus home to their children.
“I’m here for the residents,” he said. “I’m here for the team at TeaVac. We’re a family. Everyone here’s 100% dedicated to just helping out the town, helping out the residents and doing some good for the world.”
In the last two weeks, the corps said it has responded to at least 150 COVID-19 calls.
On Tuesday, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy announced that he would extend the state’s public health emergency by 30 days as New Jersey reported its deadliest day so far from COVID-19, bringing the death toll to more than 1,232.
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