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North Texas first responders face fatigue after nearly a year of working during COVID-19 pandemic

"The community is suffering from pandemic fatigue. Well, so are we," said MedStar's Matt Zavadsky.

FORT WORTH, Texas — They are the people we rely on in emergency situations. 

"Being a first responder is a calling," said Matt Zavadsky, spokesman for MedStar, which is the main ambulance service in Tarrant County.

But in a pandemic world, our first responders are now tired and stretched thin.

"The people that are able to work are doing more calls, they're seeing more patients, they're picking up extra shifts," Zavadsky said Friday.

He said nearly a year of responding to COVID calls has taken a physical and emotional toll on their emergency medical technicians. 

"They need to worry about an unseen enemy that can kill them. Or kill their family members. So every call they're responding to, they're thinking is this going to be the call I contract the coronavirus from?" Zavadsky said. 

About 1/5 of MedStar's 500 employees have contracted COVID, Zavadsky said, but the majority caught it from community spread. About 70% of their employees are frontline EMTs/medics. Only a 'handful' have been symptomatic, but once the employees test positive, they cannot work until they test negative.

Firefighters are also becoming exhausted, said Mike Drivdahl, a firefighter and spokesman for the Fort Worth Fire Department. 

"Our firefighters are fatigued," he said. "Seven to 10 days after a holiday weekend, we know we're going to start getting busy."

Fort Worth firefighters accompany MedStar on every medical call in the city. COVID calls mean suiting up in special protective gear.

"And when we come back out to the fire truck and we get ready to get back in service, we have to go through and disinfect everything and re-stock everything," Drivdahl explained. "So every one of those calls is a little bit longer than normal and it starts to add up."

As of last month, the firefighter union reported more than 100 Fort Worth firefighters had contracted COVID. Late last year, a captain in the department died of the virus; it was considered a line-of-duty death.

The pandemic has not slowed down, but our first responders are still showing up.

"The community is suffering from pandemic fatigue. Well, so are we," Zavadsky said. "One of the best things the community can do to help first responders and help health care system is don't become one of our patients."