Despite cash, pandemic pressures, COCVAC remains ready

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CLARK MILLS — A year of cascading virus calls, overwhelmed hospitals and dwindling volunteers has put a financial strain on Central Oneida County Volunteer Ambulance Corps, but not enough to sink the crews who pick you up when you’re sick.

“We’re going to stay afloat. There’s no jeopardy to public safety from us. We’re not concerned about the public being let down,” said COCVAC Assistant Chief Thomas Meyers.

“We just have to do some budgeting work. Our 2021 budget is written a little differently in the hopes of overcoming where we lost. But it’s like any other business. Going forward in 2021, what we’re trying to do is rebuild from our problems in 2020.”

COCVAC is based in Clark Mills and covers the areas of Clinton, Westmoreland, Whitestown, Augusta, Oriskany Falls, Waterville and more.

On Sunday, the New York Times published a story about rural ambulance corps in Wyoming in danger of shutting down. Meyers said COCVAC has faced similar problems to those rural corps, but their business is not so dire as of yet.

“The biggest thing that we’re having right now is recruitment and retention issues,” Meyers explained.

Before the pandemic in March 2020, COCVAC had roughly 30 full-time employees and 61 volunteers. Now, a year later, they are up slightly in full-time workers but down to only about 10 active volunteers.

“Our volunteer staff has drastically dwindled. And because of all the restrictions, doing recruitment is almost impossible,” Meyers explained. He said COCVAC typically relies on job fairs and school events to get new volunteers, but those events were all canceled due to the pandemic.

Many of the volunteers had to focus on their actual day jobs, he explained, and these jobs cracked down on potential exposures in the community. This meant most volunteers had to give up the optional gig at COCVAC.

In order to make up for the loss of volunteers, Meyers said COCVAC increased their full-time employees to roughly 37. More employees means more money needed for payroll, causing more financial stress, he stated. And that is on top of the expenses for more training and equipment connected to COVID, as well as call volumes that fluctuated wildly depending on whether or not virus cases were spiking any given month.

Meyers said call volume dropped in the immediate onset of the pandemic in spring 2020, then rose back up to normal levels through the summer. Meyers said there was spike in November that lasted through January, increasing call volume and pushing employees and volunteers to the limit.

“The call volume situations that we were dealing with, it was difficult for them. They were working pretty tirelessly for a while,” Meyers stated.

The spikes taxed the entire emergency system, the chief said. Local hospitals were also overwhelmed with calls, and that meant ambulances dropping off patients were stuck at the hospitals for longer. Meyers said this meant they were not available to cover all of the calls in their territories, and other local corps, including those linked to municipalities like Rome and Utica, had to go out to calls farther away.

“Fortunately, we all work well together, we work as a team inter-agency,” Meyers said. “We all had to work together to get through that.”

But call volume and overstuffed hospitals were not the only problems to contend with during the pandemic, the chief said. His rescue personnel suffered the emotional toll of helping people and families in a very dangerous situation.

“They’re medically treating the patient, they can do that, they’re experts at that; it’s the emotional toll,” Meyers said.

“They knew that these sick people couldn’t have family there with them at the hospital.”

And not just COVID patients, the chief explained. Because of pandemic restrictions on hospitals, non-COVID emergencies were also limited in family visits.

Meyers said many family members on scene at medical calls knew full well they may never see their loved ones again after COCVAC showed up. He noted one instance where one of his people was stopped by a family before even getting the patient out of the house on the stretcher.

The prognosis for the patient was not good, Meyers said, so the family stopped the EMT and wanted to say their final goodbyes right there at the door. He said this was a very real emotional burden for this employees and volunteers.

“It was stressful for them,” Meyers said. “The reaction at the time, when families couldn’t visit, that took an emotional toll on them.”

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