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EMTs not warned of transporting possible coronavirus patient in Seattle

American Medical Response EMTs expressed disappointment with their company for not warning employees of a potential risky transport.

SEATTLE — Emergency Medical Technicians (EMTs) who work for American Medical Response (AMR) ambulance company have expressed outrage and frustration after two EMTs transported a patient with possible novel coronavirus (COVID-19) but weren’t warned of the danger.

Public Health – Seattle & King County called for the transport on Saturday. The county alerted AMR that the patient was possibly infected with COVID-19. But that important message never made it to the first responders.

AMR employees took to a closed Facebook group this week. Dozens of comments were aimed at their employer for the communication failure.

“The communication breakdown is dangerous and could worsen the chance of spreading this disease,” one EMT wrote.

Another EMT commented: “This is….such a horrendously neglectful job of communication….this should not be happening again. This should not have happened in the first place.”

“It was super upsetting. We’re angry. It makes me feel like they don’t care about us. Like we’re just disposable,” said another EMT in a telephone interview, who did not want to be identified.

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KING 5 reached out to AMR for comment. A media office representative wrote:

“AMR Seattle has not transported any patients with the Novel Coronavirus. As part of our clinical procedures, we continue to educate and monitor our crews and dispatchers to ensure protocols are being followed.”

The top doctor at Public Health – Seattle & King County said at the time of the transport it would have been unknown if the patient were infected or not and precautions must always be taken.

“Any health care professional, including (first responders) should be aware that they may be evaluating a person that may have this infection,” said Dr. Jeff Duchin of Public Health – Seattle & King County. “Something went wrong in the system. Something fell through the cracks.”

The call out on Saturday was unusual. AMR dispatchers directed the EMTs to place a mask on the patient’s door and head back to the ambulance. Further instruction included not to make contact with the patient and to allow him to ride in the back of the ambulance alone.

In another unusual move, AMR dispatchers told the EMTs to take the patient to a specific motel in King County, about an hour away from Seattle.

That prompted the following written exchange, obtained by the KING 5 Investigators:

EMT: “Is this patient suspected of having a contagious infection?”

Dispatcher: “Yes.”

EMT: “Coronavirus?”

Dispatcher: “Unknown”

To their credit, the two EMTs decided to take measures into their own hands. They stopped and put on personal protective gear for the transport. AMR employee sources also said the crew decontaminated the rig after the transport, also on their own accord.

Duchin said the county would reach out to AMR to ensure they understand the proper procedures.

“There’s really little to no risk in our community at this point, but there may be a time where this infection does become more common in our community, and so this is really important. It’s a good opportunity to review our procedures,” Duchin said. “(We’ll) make sure (we find out) why this situation occurred and doesn’t occur again.”

Approximately six people with possible COVID-19 infection have been taken to a local motel for isolation. According to Duchin, this is protocol when a person needs to be isolated away from others but doesn’t have a place to go.

It’s a practice that’s taken place across the state and country for decades, according to Duchin and public health officials in Snohomish and Pierce counties. For years, the counties have quietly transported people who need to be isolated to motels that are vetted by health experts. They make sure there is only one entrance into the room, there’s appropriate ventilation and that the facilities do not have lobbies or elevators.

RELATED: King County health officials sent suspected coronavirus cases to motel

“People probably don’t think that there are folks who might be sick in our community and don’t have anywhere to go. It’s probably not something folks think about a lot, but unfortunately that happens,” Duchin said. “We follow all the guidelines to make sure it is safe. We don’t put anyone in a public location at all if we think there is risk to the public.”

Seventeen people have been tested for COVID-19 in King County, and all tests have come back from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention negative for infection.

So far there has only been one confirmed case in Washington state — a 35-year-old Snohomish County resident, who is recovering at home after a stint in the hospital.