AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Last April, reporter Karen Yi, of member station WNYC, rode along with a volunteer ambulance crew in Teaneck, N.J. It was the peak of the pandemic's first surge, and the crew was overwhelmed with emergency calls. Well, Yi checked in with them again recently and despite a second surge of cases in the state, found a very different picture.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Unintelligible).
KAREN YI, BYLINE: The call for help comes into the EMT station...
(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)
YI: ...And Chief Jacob Finklestein alerts his fellow volunteers. They head out to a 7-Eleven. There's a woman with chest pains.
(SOUNDBITE OF AMBULANCE)
YI: And when they get to the hospital, the emergency room entrance is unusually quiet.
JACOB FINKLESTEIN: On a normal day, even without COVID, this whole area would be filled with ambulances. But it's empty now. I'm the only one that's here.
YI: Back at the height of the pandemic, Finklestein says he'd have to wait as long as 45 minutes with a patient in his ambulance until a bed opened up. At the time, Teaneck's volunteer EMTs were on back-to-back COVID calls. I joined them on one of those days back in April.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: We're coming in with an 80-year-old male, COVID positive...
YI: The calls that came in were critical - patients in respiratory distress, cardiac arrest or already dead at home. Back then, New Jersey was at its peak of 8,000 hospitalizations. And Teaneck's infection rate was worse than New York City's.
JOE HOROWITZ: I was just like, is it going to stop? Is this going to end? Like, is it going to get better?
YI: That's Joe Horowitz. He's also a volunteer in his early-20s and a senior in college. He was going out every day because there were so many emergencies in this North Jersey town of 42,000 residents.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: We'll get you whatever you need, OK?
YI: That call, which came in the last time I was here, was from a woman in her 50s, who likely had COVID. She couldn't breathe. Even from six feet away, I could see her chest violently heaving as she fought for air. It really got to Horowitz.
HOROWITZ: Seeing absolute pure fear and suffering in someone to the, like, greatest extent I'd ever seen in my life. There was a person who was suffering whom I couldn't do anything for.
YI: Horowitz says it felt like the pandemic would never let up.
HOROWITZ: When you see a person take their last breath, and then you see the EKG go to flatline, that sticks with you.
YI: Those were really tough days. But then, the COVID-related calls stopped. There was one in May and zero in June, July and August. Volunteers finally had time to take care of themselves. But in September, COVID cases started rising again. While hospitalizations have increased to levels not seen since early May, the Ambulance Corps is only getting a handful of COVID-related calls a week. And even then, patients aren't as sick. That's partly because there's more testing now. And people know they're sick earlier and can go to a doctor before they get to the point where they need to call 911.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHATTER AND LAUGHTER)
YI: The mood now is lighter. And the crew is back to responding to mostly normal calls, like car crashes and slip and falls. College student Leah Kahan says responding to calls is still a risk because they're going in and out of hospitals that have COVID patients, and even people they transport who don't have any symptoms could be carrying the virus.
LEAH KAHAN: It's definitely scary when we go on these calls. It's like we know we have the protection, we know we have the PPE, but you still never know.
YI: These EMT volunteers are being given priority for COVID vaccines, though it's not clear when they will get them. Whether that happens sooner or later, they say they'll be ready, no matter how many times that alarm echoes across the building.
(SOUNDBITE OF ALARM)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Should have invested in those.
YI: For NPR News, I'm Karen Yi in Teaneck, N.J.
(SOUNDBITE OF SWOLLEN MEMBERS' "DARK CLOUDS")
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.