Occupational exposures and programmatic response to COVID-19 pandemic: an emergency medical services experience

Emerg Med J. 2020 Nov;37(11):707-713. doi: 10.1136/emermed-2020-210095. Epub 2020 Sep 21.


Rigorous assessment of occupational COVID-19 risk and personal protective equipment (PPE) use is not well-described. We evaluated 9-1-1 emergency medical services (EMS) encounters for patients with COVID-19 to assess occupational exposure, programmatic strategies to reduce exposure and PPE use. We conducted a retrospective cohort investigation of laboratory-confirmed patients with COVID-19 in King County, Washington, USA, who received 9-1-1 EMS responses from 14 February 2020 to 26 March 2020. We reviewed dispatch, EMS and public health surveillance records to evaluate the temporal relationship between exposure and programmatic changes to EMS operations designed to identify high-risk patients, protect the workforce and conserve PPE. There were 274 EMS encounters for 220 unique COVID-19 patients involving 700 unique EMS providers with 988 EMS person-encounters. Use of 'full' PPE including mask (surgical or N95), eye protection, gown and gloves (MEGG) was 67%. There were 151 person-exposures among 129 individuals, who required 981 quarantine days. Of the 700 EMS providers, 3 (0.4%) tested positive within 14 days of encounter, though these positive tests were not attributed to occupational exposure from inadequate PPE. Programmatic changes were associated with a temporal reduction in exposures. When stratified at the study encounters midpoint, 94% (142/151) of exposures occurred during the first 137 EMS encounters compared with 6% (9/151) during the second 137 EMS encounters (p<0.01). By the investigation's final week, EMS deployed MEGG PPE in 34% (3579/10 468) of all EMS person-encounters. Less than 0.5% of EMS providers experienced COVID-19 illness within 14 days of occupational encounter. Programmatic strategies were associated with a reduction in exposures, while achieving a measured use of PPE.

Keywords: disaster planning and response; first responders; operational; prehospital care; research; safety.

MeSH terms

  • Betacoronavirus
  • COVID-19
  • COVID-19 Testing
  • Clinical Laboratory Techniques
  • Coronavirus Infections / diagnosis
  • Coronavirus Infections / epidemiology*
  • Coronavirus Infections / transmission*
  • Emergency Medical Services / organization & administration*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Mass Screening
  • Occupational Exposure / prevention & control*
  • Occupational Exposure / statistics & numerical data*
  • Pandemics
  • Personal Protective Equipment*
  • Pneumonia, Viral / epidemiology*
  • Pneumonia, Viral / transmission*
  • Quarantine
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Risk Assessment
  • SARS-CoV-2
  • Washington / epidemiology