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Austin first responders facing strain amid staffing shortages due to COVID-19

In a release last week, the Austin EMS Association said all medics are now essentially "on call or at work seven days a week with no relief."

AUSTIN, Texas — A spokesperson with Austin-Travis County EMS (ATCEMS) confirmed on Jan. 6 that approximately 20% of its staff members now have COVID-19.

Last week, ATCEMS officials activated their least severe level of "increased readiness" plans to make sure EMS can respond quickly and effectively to emergencies "in the face of potentially crippling shortages," the Austin EMS Association announced in a release.

According to the memo released to Austin-Travis County EMS medics, they are being asked to prepare for emergency callback and to have their phones on if they are off duty. The emergency plan comes as the department faces a staffing shortage that is worsening as medics are infected with COVID-19.

"Having rest is so important between shifts to make sure that people are in their best form when they're responding to these life threatening emergencies," said Austin EMS Association President Selena Xie.

"This is just more of a warning to our staff to let them know, to start the alerting process to go, 'Hey, you know, we think things are hitting us harder than normal staffing wise, and so be ready for alternate plans that may come into the future'" said Austin EMS Interim Chief Jasper Brown. 

Both Austin EMS Interim Chief Jasper Brown and Xie told KVUE that aside from COVID-19, the department has been operating with about 80% of staff allowed by funding. Interim Chief Brown noted that many of these positions that are not filled were added earlier this year by the Austin City Council, but understand medics are stretched thin.

"Our medics have been through two years of COVID, a lot of extra work. You know, Winter Storm Uri, they're very, very tired and they've worked real hard," said Interim Chief Brown. "So we're very cautious about doing that and we'll do everything possible not to have them work more than they need to. But we are a public safety agency and we want to respond to the public in their time of need also."

Interim Chief Brown said nearly one in every 15 ATCEMS medics is infected or is suspected of being infected with COVID-19 and are therefore unable to work. ATCEMS has 27 confirmed cases as of Dec. 30 and is awaiting confirmatory results from about eight other people in a workforce of about 500.

"I am very worried that our members are not going to feel entitled to fully disconnect from work now, that they are not going to get that essential rest,” said Xie. “ATCEMS medics work hard when they are clocked in, and we bear the brunt of the city’s pandemic response during every surge in COVID-19 cases. These surges cause our call volume to spike and, of course, each one brings more risk that more of our medics will get infected. It’s extremely stressful. I’m proud of how our members have handled this for the last two years, but they deserve to rest when they can.”

Xie said the latest spike in cases caused by the omicron variant has only added to an already stressed department that is dealing with chronic staffing shortages. She said the department's new hire academy was only about half full.

“We are having serious problems with recruitment. With well over 100 openings, we aren’t going to get relief from the status quo. Attrition – including early retirement – is at an all-time high, and we anticipate even more openings in the coming months,” Xie said.

When it comes to New Years Eve, Interim Chief Brown said they will need to revaluate staffing each day if more people test positive for COVID-19. He said that if needed, they would pull people from administrative tasks to help fill the gaps. He said they should not have any staffing shortages on New Year's Eve and will have extra ambulances staffed, although Xie had concerns about the department having extra staff on hand. 

In a release announcing the latest developments, Xie again urged the city to recruit and retain medics to help improve the ongoing staffing situation. The Austin EMS Association is currently in contract negotiations with the City of Austin.

Both Brown and Xie encourage people to be safe this weekend due to EMS staff and hospital workers being stretched thin due to COVID-19.

As far as COVID-19 cases among other first responders besides medics, KVUE confirmed last week that there were about 104 Austin Police Department officers and about 50 Austin Fire Department firefighters – of a total 1,250 – who had COVID-19. 

APD Chief Joseph Chacon said each officer is required to get tested on their first day of the workweek. He said APD has seen a number of asymptotic positive cases because of this testing requirement, but the department still does not know how many officers are fully vaccinated or boosted.

APD told KVUE that some shifts could go as much as 50% short in some cases, but that has already been the case and is not necessarily due to COVID-19. Chacon said that it is a challenge, but is "manageable at this point." The department has not had to take extreme measures like putting more administrative personnel or detectives on the front line.

Chief Joseph Chacon said earlier this week that although they are facing staffing shortages, they will be fully-staffed throughout the city on New Year's Eve and will have extra officers in the downtown area.

AFD confirmed to KVUE that staffing isn't a problem at the moment and the department has taken steps to prevent the spread of COVID-19, including prohibiting visitors to fire stations and requiring firefighters to wear masks in public while on duty.

Capital Metro said it is also facing shortages, releasing the following statement Thursday, Dec. 30.

"Today we have more than 18 bus operators who are COVID-19 positive and many others who called in from other sickness or quarantine. We anticipate that positive cases will increase over the next month, resulting in multiple routes with reduced frequency and trips being dropped.

"We realize that public transportation is a lifeline to our community, and CapMetro will do all we can to manage through these staffing challenges. Austin has proven throughout the pandemic to be a resilient city, and we look forward to better days ahead of us in 2022."

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