Shawn Miller, paramedic

Shawn Miller, a paramedic with Citizens’ Ambulance Service and 911 operations manager, demonstrated how the ambulances have been outfitted to transport coronavirus patients.

EDITOR’S NOTE:This is the first in a two-part series looking into operations at Citizens’ Ambulance Service.

Americans have had the drill pounded into their heads for more than a month now.

Wash your hands. Wear a mask.

Stay away from everyone else.

The responses vary from daintily sidestepping other humans that unexpectedly round the corner, to something short of vacuum-sealing the window and door cracks in their homes.

Yet it’s a death-defyingly opposite response that’s demanded of others in the culture as we know it.

And “demand” may not be the way paramedics and emergency medical technicians view their assignments to march into what, for all they know, could be the jaws of death when the call to help a person suffering “respiratory distress” goes out.

At Indiana-based Citizens’ Ambulance Service, some first-responders relish the adrenalin jag that comes from an assignment to check and transport someone feared to have the potentially fatal coronavirus infection.

They suit up in protective gear seen before only in their planning manuals.

They drive out in ambulances also shielded in ways that smack of science fiction to stave off the spread of the fearsome COVID-19 virus.

But they reflect in mixed terms of their perilous missions — with pride in having brought critically ill patients an opportunity to recover, with gratitude for surviving the scourge so that they could go out and serve again.

As much a frontline defense against the world’s most feared pandemic of the past century as are doctors and nurses at Indiana Regional Medical Center, the medics at Citizens’ Ambulance Service have equally readied themselves to march into the coronavirus battle.

For as strictly as the hospital has charted out its protocol for treating the sick and safeguarding the healthy, the ambulance company has mapped out all the steps the organization follows in rescuing the ill.

As much as they have the look of being bulletproof, the rank-and-file paramedics and EMTs at Citizens’ contend with the same culture and economy as the rest of the Indiana County population.

A lot of those serving part-time duties on the ambulance have 9-to-5 day jobs, and a fair number have been furloughed from their full-time “non-essential” employment like thousands of others in the area.

And for the painstaking efforts to seal themselves away from the corona pathogen, some paramedics have been exposed to the virus without the chance to don protective gear.

Nearly two months into the battle against what some experts consider just the first wave of COVID-19 infection in the U.S., medical and political leaders have begin talk of reopening the economy — dialing back the adamant call for people to stay at home for anything short of life-sustaining causes.

At Citizens’ Ambulance, Chief Executive Officer B.J. Pino said the ambulance service has no such plan to let down the guard in its own operation.

“It would be easy to dial back and it’s a big question, but I’m not a physician or epidemiologist,” Pino said.

“From a corporate standpoint, absolutely not. We’re going to be as cautious as ever. We still don’t know what’s in front of us. With every patient we pick up, we have no idea whether that patient is COVID-positive or not. It’s good that we’re still suspicious of that. So we’re doing the best we can.”

In house, Citizens’ is maintaining precautions, he said.

To limit the paramedics’ exposure, teams are being kept intact for their work schedules, not being broken up and assigned to work with others.

Pino said they still mask up at all times. In the ambulance station, they stay distant from each other.

“You try to reduce as much community gathering as possible.”

Pino said Citizens’ and its employees have been grateful for community expression of support and thanks for their up-front work during the pandemic.

“I’ve seen more lunches coming through our doors,” Pino said, naming political figures, businessmen and companies that have paid the tab for the paramedics.

“The church in Homer City that makes the Easter eggs (Homer City United Methodist Church) — they dropped off a whole slew of them. And the Girl Scouts dropped off cases of cookies for them too. ... It’s the outpouring of all this affection. You have no idea how important it is.”

Pino didn’t speculate on the future of the ambulance service, following well-documented financial challenges of the past few years that have promoted some cutbacks in service.

“We are feeling the drastic effects of the economic downturn. The problems at Citizens’ Ambulance Service and other EMS agencies across the commonwealth prior to COVID-19 are still there but are exacerbated two-fold.

“When you cannot survive to begin with, then you look at 40 percent revenue cuts and your cost of readiness is through the roof — it’s completely in orbit now.

“It’s not going to do any good to complain. But we are committed, being Citizens’, to make sure that we are there for the public. Our short-term goal is to make it to the other side, whenever that is, but in the meantime to take care of the public.”

Despite a wave of public sentiment to scale back on the precautions demanded by government since early March, Pino said he disagrees that this is the right time.

“Who can say when it’s too early or too late?” Pino said. “I go back to the educated folks who are dealing with this, the ones specializing in infectious diseases. We don’t have a proven cure, not even a proven treatment. We have trials but we don’t have a cure and we don’t have a vaccine — the two things, in my humble opinion, that society should make sure they completely and totally understand and before making those decisions.

“We are seeing less and less patients who are COVID-positive but we still are not testing enough. We hope that will come and that ultimately we’ll have a vaccination.

“I think that what we should do is pay attention to what our educated professionals are telling us,” Pino emphasized. “The people who are more learned than I. If we don’t pay attention, we will be seeing a surge back up again. And then in October when flu season returns, that’s a serious problem. A serious problem. I will bow to the physicians and epidemiologists that we have to hear from.

“We won’t let up,” he said. “We are committed. We are going to do our damnedest to serve this community. This is our mission and our job, and we accept that responsibility.”

Staff Writer/Web Editor

Chauncey Ross represents the Gazette at the county courthouse; Indiana Area and Homer-Center schools; Blairsville, Homer City, Clymer, Center and Burrell; and is something of an Open Records, Right to Know and Sunshine Law advocate in the newsroom.