EMS crew

Photo by Lynn Thompson

Universal precautions like masks, gloves and face shields have always prevented contamination in the back of an ambulance and social distancing standards outside are just one more level of protection. From left are Williams County EMS paramedic and training coordinator Kyle Brigle, paramedic Jesse Brumbaugh, emergency medical technician Megan Day and paramedic Carol Hibbard.

Dealing with COVID-19 is easy for Williams County Emergency Medical Services Director Jim Hicks, but dealing with its aftermath may not be.

The last pandemic, an H1N1 influenza outbreak in 2009, never really hit rural areas. But the impact of global quarantines and stay-at-home orders from the coronavirus will most likely affect the economy for the next four years.

“The H1N1 problem never materialized here,” Hicks said. “We still had lots of PPE (personal protective equipment) in stock from that. When COVID hit we just put all that out on the front line.

“We’re a lot more aware of contagious diseases now but we haven’t really had to change anything else,” Hicks said. “We’ve always used universal precautions and over the years we’ve gotten comfortable with the risks. We just assume everyone has it.”

What they may not have is money, and that threatens to disrupt funding.

“We’ve always been a self-sufficient agency,” Hicks said. “No tax dollars involved. If you never call 911 and ask for an ambulance, you won’t pay for it. Not many in the state are like that and it’s a real bragging point.”

Hicks’ entire $1.8 million budget comes from revenue generated by usage, which includes everything from inter-hospital and nursing home transfers to emergency medicine at traffic accidents and life-saving intervention during drug overdoses.

“That means we have to be very aggressive in collections,” he said. “If we don’t collect we can’t pay bills and we can’t keep the system operating.

“We always have to keep the budget balanced and in the black,” Hicks said. “Some years it’s a narrow margin, less than a $1,000. Most years we carry over $20,000 to $30,000, but that’s still not much. Six months without collections would put us in very bad shape.

“It will take two to four years for the economy to recover from COVID-19,” Hicks said. “Every bill we send out is likely going to someone who’s lost their job or (is) working reduced hours. If you have to choose between paying last month’s bill or putting food on the table tonight, what are you going to do? I tell people that. Put food on your table. We’ll work with anybody to get bills paid.

“The important thing is to work with us,” he said. “We have a ton of options, from charity care funding and debt elimination based on federal poverty-level guidelines to reduced payment plans. The worst thing you can do for everybody is throw bills away and not communicate.”

Hicks said EMS will be tightening its belt to deal with anticipated reduced revenues from the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’re already watching expenditures and won’t be buying any big ticket items next year, maybe even the year after,” he said. “We can run an extra 10,000 to 20,000 miles on the old ambulances and keep them going. Same with cardiac monitors. They cost about $30,000 apiece and we’re using the older models in the volunteer squads.”

Hicks said the county EMS is unique in that it operates side-by-side with the units in surrounding municipalities.

“Stryker’s squad is almost always available,” he said. “Edon and Edgerton run when they can, based on when people are available around their regular jobs. We have first responders in most of the villages. That also makes us unique — the national trend is going away from volunteers but we still have pretty significant involvement.

“We want to remain self-funded but I don’t know how long that will last,” Hicks said. “Appreciate it while you can.”

Williams County EMS employs 57 emergency medical technicians, from basic to paramedic-level certification, and one administrative assistant.

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