By Rich Calder and Susan Edelman
The city’s ambulance corps are so understaffed because of the COVID-19 surge, they’re now under new orders to try to convince stable patients with flu-like symptoms not to go to the hospital.
The directive from the FDNY puts EMS crews on notice that “effective immediately, stable patients with influenza-like illness … should not be transported to a 911-receiving facility” unless they meet certain criteria: being over 65 years old, having a fever above 100.4 degrees or a history of diabetes or heart conditions, according to a copy obtained by The Post.
Oren Barzilay, president of Local 2507, the union representing more than 4,100 rank-and-file city emergency medical technicians and paramedics, said Saturday more than 30% of his members are out of medical leave – and a vast of majority of the absences are due to staff catching COVID-19 on the front lines.
About 20-25%, or about 800 members, are out specifically because they caught COVID-19, Barzilay estimated — adding the city only has itself to blame for not dealing with longtime staffing shortage of medics.
Both he and Vincent Variale, president of the city’s EMS Officers Union Local 3621, said the new orders might be necessary as 911 calls have skyrocketed the past month.
“It’s a shame that two years into the pandemic, the city isn’t prepared to deal with COVID,” Barzilay told The Post.
The EMS staffing crisis comes as the NYPD has its own struggles with coronavirus absences, sources said: there were 6,883 cops out sick Saturday – including 1,920 with COVID-19 – or nearly 20 percent of the Police Department.
Five are now hospitalized.In December, 3053 cops tested positive – breaking a previous record since the pandemic started of 2,846 during April 2020. But the stricken EMS service, which a source said had dozens of ambulance crews out of service in Brooklyn alone last week due to the staffing crisis, has an easy fix at its disposal.
About 200 medics could be allowed to come back to work, Barzilay said, after they were put on unpaid leave because of a city mandate requiring municipal workers be vaccinated for COVID-19.
City medics are also routinely putting in 60 and 70-hour weeks. The FDNY last week temporarily lifted an overtime cap applying to all city agencies that prohibits municipal workers from making more than 40 percent of their salary in overtime, Barzilay said.
Variale said city medics are already trained to determine whether a patient needs to go a hospital.
Under the new order they’ll call an FDNY emergency doctor on duty to help decide whether a patient who appears stable should be taken to a hospital, he said.
The doctor could get on the phone and directly ask the patients questions to help make a decision, he added.
“We don’t want to tell anyone they can’t go to a hospital, but we are vastly understaffed, so we have to do what we can to triage all this and decide who should be going and who shouldn’t,” Variale said.
However, one veteran paramedic said, “it’s ridiculous to put this kind of pressure on a crew.”
“The FDNY ambulance crew cannot just leave you, and say ‘Sorry we’re not doing anything’ and drive off. It’s abandonment,” the source said.
The FDNY acknowledged the order was due to “high medical leave” among EMS workers because of the COVID surge, but didn’t immediately respond to further questions Saturday.
EMS union reps said their members see no evidence of city hospitals being overwhelmed by a lack of beds to deal with COVID-19 patients.
A spokesman for NYC Health+Hospitals said capacity in the city’s hospital system is “stable,” while a Northwell Health spokesman said the system was “well within manageable levels” of patient beds.
Admissions for COVID are up at New York Presbyterian, but stays are shorter and coronavirus cases in the hospital’s intensive care units are behind where they were last year, said Chief Surgeon Craig R. Smith in a message to colleagues Friday.
The Omicron variant accounts for 80% of the cases, Smith said, noting that next week the hospital would reschedule some elective surgeries as it staffs just two-thirds of its operating rooms.
There is some help on the way. Gov. Kathy Hochul earlier this week announced 80 members of the National Guard are being trained to become certified EMTs and help both with medic shortages both in city and upstate regions.
Additional reporting by Larry Celona, Melissa Klein and Kerrry J. Byrne