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Boone County Ambulance Authority Director Bryan Justice explains the strategy behind designating a single ambulance for suspected COVID-19-related transports.

BOONE COUNTY — Boone County Ambulance Authority Director Bryan Justice said he believes that the swift action, preparation and communication between agencies within the county put citizens in good hands as precautions regarding the COVID-19 pandemic shift into high gear across the county.

“As a citizen, I would be very proud of the response that Boone County has taken to protect its citizens,” Justice said. “I don’t think there is any county that has taken a more proactive approach than Boone.”

Justice said agencies across the county — including fire departments, Whitesville EMS, the Boone County Sheriff’s Office, the BCAA and the Boone County Emergency Management Agency — have come together to implement a plan.

“It starts with Boone Memorial Hospital — and they were out in front of this from the beginning,” Justice added. “Procedures are in place to protect all of our employees and our citizens.”

In a story published by the CVN on March 25, hospital Chief Executive Officer Virgil Underwood explained the approach of BMH.

“Our approach has been that of aggressive preparedness, not panic,” explained Underwood. “While we understand the need for ongoing education to our patients, staff and visitors, we realize there is an abundance of information surfacing. Therefore, in order to alleviate some confusion, we at Boone Memorial Hospital want to be transparent in what one can expect when visiting our facility in relation to COVID-19.”

Justice and the BCAA have designated one vehicle for COVID-19-related transport. Employees have built a poly containment inside the ambulance separating the cab from the patient area and encapsulated equipment to help prevent the transmission of the virus. The truck was set to be ready for action on March 27.

“We held a management meeting here with our Operations Director Joey Smith, all of our mid-level management and developed our plan,” he added. “Part of that plan involves designating one truck and one crew to respond to these types of incidents.”

The Boone County Emergency Management Agency, through 911-related call screening, has structured additional questions to assist first responders well in advance.

“This allows us to evaluate a call in real time and we can identify a potential COVID-19 situation before arriving at the scene, which protects our employees and the patient,” added Justice.

Supplies have been hard to come by. Justice and Smith have spent hours tracking down related supplies through new vendors across the country.

“We learned early on that if we had an outbreak that we’d run out of supplies pretty quickly,” Justice added. “There is also the financial burden associated with purchasing supplies at a time when our county is struggling financially and our budget is squeezed already. We had about 80 N95 masks and 31 kits with the gowns and boot covers.”

With West Virginia being the last state to report a case of the virus, supplies were already in short order across the country. The BCAA has procured new supplies through research and acquiring new vendors.

“The state sent us masks and we got some through our vendors,” he added. “Our vendors have put a cap on what you can order, which helps us in the grand scheme of this. With the situation we have in New York and New Jersey, we’ll naturally be one of the last to get supplies from the Federal Government, so we need to be as prepared as we can be. Those supplies will go where there is the greatest need.”

Justice wanted to communicate specific information to citizens.

“If we run a COVID-19 patient, it will be the patient and our crew,” he said. “We will not transport a family member. We are trying to provide that social distancing. This is something you may have never seen an EMS crew respond like before. If we think it is a possible COVID-19 case, we’ll have coveralls, hoods, boot covers, goggles and masks. Don’t be alarmed when you see this, as it is precautionary and ultimately necessary.”

As of March 28, West Virginia registered 113 positive cases for COVID-19 with no confirmed deaths reported. Boone County had yet to notch a positive test for the virus.

Boone County Emergency Management Agency/911 Director Michael Mayhorn spoke about how important it is for citizens to remain calm and answer 911-related questions from dispatchers as accurately as possible.

“Every 911 call, even before this situation we ask specific questions to help our responders,” said Mahorn. “We’ve added to that the questions recommended by CDC (Centers for Disease and Control). On the 911 side, we don’t diagnose but we get signs and symptoms. We get the best information we can and relay it to our two ambulance services in the county.”

Mahorn said that Whitesville EMS, the BCAA and the BCEMA/911 began communicating early about what could be done and what strategies could be utilized to put first responders in the best position to help citizens while protecting workers in the progress.

Mahorn said that, when using 911, communication and patience are key.

“People get frustrated when we take control of the call and we try to get a call in and out in under two minutes which is the national standard,” he said. “The best thing they can do is answer the questions they are asked and in the order they are asked and be calm, clear and concise.”

Matt Lively is the fire chief in Whitesville and, along with Whitesville EMS, has been proactive in their strategy moving forward.

“We have put some things in place that are important,” Lively said. “We want our employees to arrive to work in plain clothes and we’ve purchased additional uniforms for them and we want them to change if they have come in contact with a potential COVID-19 case and launder their uniforms in between those calls and they can change and shower before leaving work for home, as well.”

Lively said that, with the N95 masks in short supply, his agency has clearly communicated what types of calls they are to be used for.

“We’ve collectively worked in the county to put a decontamination policy and screening policy together before we make patient contact,” he said. “We’ve bought respirator attachments for face pieces. With the N95 mask shortage, this is a backup to the backup system.”

Lively added, “This is all about limiting exposure for all of us and it is a marathon, not a race,” he said. “Through education and careful planning, we can all get through this together.”

Reporter Phil Perry can be reached at pperry@hdmediallc.com or at 304-307-2401.