Henry Rodriguez, an Oak Forest resident and 10-year veteran of the Houston Fire Department, took a two-week vacation at the beginning of March.
When he came back mid-month, things at his job were quite different on account of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I had a mask and was wearing it if someone had symptoms, but it wasn’t required,” Rodriguez said of the time before his vacation. “Now (personal protective equipment) are mandatory, including N95, goggles and gloves. We assume that they have it.”
Rodriguez received a promotion a year-and-a-half ago and now works at Houston Fire Station 30 on Irvington Boulevard. The first responder is part of a unit called basic life support care. Rodriguez is one of two emergency medical technicians who drives an ambulance to provide hospital transport to those who call 911. Sometimes the two will answer a call on their own, but often they accompany the other HFD personnel on City of Houston dispatch calls.
The uptick in calls Rodriguez answered upon return from his break were largely related to COVID-19, the upper-respiratory disease caused by the new strain of coronavirus.
“A lot of people thought they had the symptoms,” Rodriguez said. “They thought we could test them.”
Rodriguez explained to each what the best of course of action and treatment would entail as well as the likelihood of getting a test in an environment where they were in short supply with stricter guidelines in place for screening.
“For those people who wanted to go to the hospital we would transport them,” Rodriguez said. “We can’t deny them. We’d radio it into the hospital and wait to hear before we brought the patient in. Now hospitals have separate entrances (for suspected COVID-19 patients).”
For those who were coughing or experiencing breathing difficulties, Rodriguez and his team had to weigh the risks involved in nebulization, or delivering drugs into the lungs directly via a mist. A blood oxygen level below 90 percent mandated treatment.
“(Nebulization) can send the particles into the air and increase the chance of getting infected,” Rodriguez said.
While Rodriguez was initially nervous about the amount of PPE that would be available, he said there is enough to protect his station. There are also evolving protocols about what should be worn at what time.
Gowns are required for personnel who make contact with a person exhibiting symptoms. Face shields became mandatory a week ago. Rodriguez said he and his co-workers now wear basic masks around the station to protect themselves from each other and also get a temperature check when they come on shift.
“There was so much new information and new guidelines at first, but now it’s all on a website which makes it easier,” Rodriguez said.
While Rodriguez has always been good about washing his hands, he said he now pays extra attention to the cleanliness of his ambulance.
“We just got a new sprayer to fog it,” he said.
And while calls have abated somewhat from those who fear they are symptomatic, there are new ones to take their place.
“What has picked up are calls about anxiety, alcoholism (and) drug abuse,” Rodriguez said.