As Deaths Mount, Volunteer EMTs At New Jersey's Coronavirus Epicenter Labor On The EMT crew on the front lines of one of the hardest-hit New Jersey towns is all volunteer. They say calls are getting more intense and more people are dying.

As Deaths Mount, Volunteer EMTs At New Jersey's Coronavirus Epicenter Labor On

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A group of volunteer EMTs in Teaneck, N.J., is on the front lines of the coronavirus outbreak that has ravaged their town. The infection rate there is higher than in New York City. As cases of COVID-19 keep rising, the Teaneck Volunteer Ambulance Corps say they need more manpower and more supplies. WNYC's Karen Yi reports.


UNIDENTIFIED EMT #1: OK, you're on your way.

KAREN YI, BYLINE: Oh, already?

UNIDENTIFIED EMT #2: So do you want to take it, or do you want me to take it?

YI: A call comes in just a few minutes after I walk into the EMT headquarters. A patient is in cardiac arrest, likely COVID-positive.

JACOB FINKELSTEIN: We were dispatched to a report of a patient not breathing. It's in a nursing home which has had a number of cases.

YI: Captain Jacob Finkelstein is coming off an overnight shift, but you wouldn't be able to tell. He's calm and steady, leading an all-volunteer brigade in the epicenter of the state's outbreak. He's only 24 years old.

FINKELSTEIN: Ambulance 74 is arriving on Teaneck Road.

YI: He says the calls are getting more intense - difficulty breathing, respiratory distress, cardiac arrest - and more people are dying at home.

We don't stay at the nursing home very long. By the time we get there, the patient is dead. It's not the first death of the morning.

FINKELSTEIN: It is my third of the day, and it's, like, 10 o'clock now. So that's pretty crazy for us. You know, we normally see probably less than one a week. And we're seeing, like, three, four, five, six a day right now.

YI: The EMTs are getting twice the usual number of calls at a time when half the volunteers are out sick or on quarantine. Others are worried they'll bring the virus home. The Teaneck Volunteer Ambulance Corps receives some funding from the town and runs on donations. Other volunteer squads aren't responding to calls these days. It's too much of a risk for their members. Some crews have run out of supplies, leaving it up to hospitals or paid EMTs to respond. In Teaneck, they make do with any personal protective equipment they can get.

FINKELSTEIN: A family in town found a YouTube video on how to make homemade face shields, so the lady said she would make as many as she can a day with her kids.

YI: A local high school also donated goggles from their closed science labs.


YI: Another call comes in. A man is having difficulty breathing. We rush him to the hospital, passing refrigerated trucks out front for the overflow of bodies.

FINKELSTEIN: Seventy-four - we're coming in with a 80-year-old male, COVID-positive.

They had a bed for us right now, which was nice. Lately, that's not always the case.

YI: Worried about exposing his family, Finkelstein moved into another apartment, where he's been living for the last three weeks. Other members say they've brought the virus home or tested positive themselves, like 20-year-old Bobby Alexiou. He's newly freed from his quarantine after coming down with a mild case. It's his first day back. Just don't tell his parents.

BOBBY ALEXIOU: Oh, they don't know I'm here. I'm like, oh, I just got to - I'm just going over to do some food shopping, you know? I'll be back in, like, an hour. I'm not allowed to be down here. As soon as this whole thing kicked off, they were like, no more going to Teaneck for any calls at all.

YI: He says there are just too many calls and he wants to help.

UNIDENTIFIED EMT #3: That's great, Bob. They'll never know about it now.

ALEXIOU: Oh. Oops. Good thing they don't watch the news.

YI: A few minutes later.

ALEXIOU: I owe you.


YI: The laughs are short-lived. The mood in the room changes in an instant.

ALEXIOU: OK, en route.

Suit up.

UNIDENTIFIED EMT #4: What you got?

ALEXIOU: COVID-positive, difficulty breathing.

YI: We're on a quiet residential street. A woman in her 50s is struggling to breathe when she's carried out of the basement and placed on a stretcher. Her family watches from the lawn. They have to stay behind. In the ambulance, the patient is alert. But then suddenly, she goes into cardiac arrest. At the hospital, Alexiou wheels her inside as a paramedic performs chest compressions. He eventually comes back to the ambulance and shakes his head. The woman has passed away.

JOE HOROWITZ: It's just hard to see anyone in pain.

YI: Twenty-one-year-old Joe Horowitz also responded to the call - his last for the night.

HOROWITZ: This was a particularly difficult call, and things like this happen. I think it's the frequency with which it's happening that makes it a little more difficult.

YI: He throws on coveralls, puts his clothes in a bag and goes home. He'll be rethinking this in his empty house. His family is staying in upstate New York to ride out the outbreak.

By the end of the night, the station is empty except for one volunteer. And then that familiar ring comes again.


YI: A 58-year-old man can't breathe.

For NPR News, I'm Karen Yi in Teaneck, N.J.


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