'Every COVID patient I've taken to the hospital, I know them': Lee County paramedics struggling to keep up with surge in patients

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Posted at 6:30 PM, Sep 17, 2021
and last updated 2021-09-17 19:13:34-04

LEE COUNTY, Ky. (LEX 18) — Emergency crews in rural Kentucky say their jobs grow more challenging by the day. In Lee County, calls for ambulances are up 25%. Meanwhile, local hospitals are full, so in some cases paramedics need to drive patients hours away.

“I want them to live,” said paramedic Patricia Cole. “So I work my hardest to make sure I get ‘em there.”

After 12 years on the job, Cole is used to spending time in an ambulance, but she said nothing could prepare her for the past few months.

“It’s scary, for all of us,” she said.

Lee County EMS crew typically take patients to hospitals in Jackson or Irvine, about 25 miles away. Right now, those rural facilities are full. The strain on hospitals across the Commonwealth impacts everyone, said EMS director Jon Allen.

“Now we're sometimes having to go to Winchester, which is 50-some miles,” Allen told LEX 18. “Richmond, 50-some miles. Hazard, 50-some miles, or even Lexington, 70-plus miles.”

Those trips are double their normal distance. For some, it could be an hour and a half to find an open hospital bed.

“We've got patients that are depending on us,” Cole said. “Some of them are critical.”

According to Cole, this job is even tougher right now. When someone is sick with COVID, and she shows up to take them to the hospital in an ambulance, she likely knows them or their family.

“I've worked here for so long and this is a small community,” she said. “And if I haven't hauled that person, I've hauled their family member. So I know them, and it's difficult. It's a struggle.”

“These folks they’re transporting people they know,” Allen added. “They’re seeing them struggle in various states of struggle with the COVID virus, so it’s been tough on the crews, and we’re working on mental health.”

But despite the emotional and physical toll of this pandemic, Cole said she’ll keep showing up, and she’ll drive as far as it takes to get people to a doctor.

Now she’s just asking for help.

“Get vaccinated,” she said. “Protect not just yourself, but the people around you that you love.”