‘Three Busiest Days We’ve Ever Had’: New Yorkers Are Swamping 911 With COVID-19 Calls

QUEENS, NEW YORK - MARCH 23: An ambulance rushes through an intersection on March 23, 2020 in Queens, New York. (Photo by Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images)
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March 27, 2020 2:10 p.m.

Sick and panicked New Yorkers are swamping the city’s 911 system with calls, breaking records and overwhelming first responders.

“It’s the three busiest days we’ve ever had,” FDNY spokesperson Frank Dwyer told TPM on Friday, referring to Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.

The city responded to more than 5,700 medical incidents on Tuesday, 5,800 on Wednesday and 6,000 incidents on Thursday, Dwyer said — each one a new record high.

“We broke it each day,” Dwyer said, adding separately: “They are absolutely swamping EMTs and paramedics.”

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The New York City metropolitan area is the epicenter of the COVID-19 crisis in the United States. As of Friday, there were 25,573 confirmed cases in the city alone, according to the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene — more than a quarter of the country’s total.

FDNY has sought to urge New Yorkers to only call 911 in a true emergency, Dwyer said — not with concerns about flu-like symptoms or a desire to get tested for COVID-19.

“We have seen a very large increase in sick calls, and that’s what’s driving this massive surge,” Dwyer said. “We have people who are concerned or scared when they have these symptoms. They’re calling 911 and we need them to call their doctor instead.”

911 operators are receiving “a lot more calls from people who just want to go get tested,” said Carl Gandolfo, a paramedic, instructor and Local 2507 union official. “They might feel feverish and are experiencing regular symptoms of the flu, as is normal for this time of this year.”

“People out on the front lines are trying to deliver what we often are recognized for, psychological first aid,” he added. “Trying to address peoples’ concerns and quell their fears.”

The city’s paramedics are feeling the impact of that massive increase in calls.

Running low on personal protective equipment like N95 masks and often working 16-hour days, first-responders know they may frequently come in contact with the virus causing the global pandemic.

“I think that they are now going with the mentality that they are potentially facing it on every call that they go to,” Gandolfo said. He relayed stories from providers who went on seemingly regular calls for possible heart attacks only to arrive to a patient who exhibited fever, coughing, and other potential COVID-19 symptoms.

“We don’t know what we are exactly facing when we do report to a patient’s home for a sick call,” he said.

Ten percent of the union’s membership was out sick Thursday, Gandolfo said, about double the usual rate. One paramedic, Christell Cadet, 34, was intubated and hooked up to a ventilator this week as a result of COVID-19.

EMTs and paramedics, Gandolfo said, “are the last line and the first line of defense against anything medical. No one else is going to come, except us.”

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