What Louisiana ambulance workers are seeing as COVID surges

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The pandemic has created grim realities for patients, loved ones, doctors and nurses, but what about the emergency medical workers who see patients before they get to the hospital? With the recent surge in COVID infections, CBS News correspondent David Begnaud rode along with an ambulance company in Louisiana to see what they're up against.

His crew was there when 48-year-old Julia Clay was loaded into an Acadian Ambulance and taken to Our Lady of Lourdes Regional Medical Center in Lafayette, Louisiana. 

At Our Lady of Lourdes, 59% of the beds are filled with COVID patients and 93% of those patients are unvaccinated. Clay is now one of them.

She said she had been waiting three days for help and she wished she had taken the vaccine.

Acadian Ambulance, which is based in Louisiana, is the largest privately-owned ambulance company in the country. Begnaud spent three days with their crews.

Dr. Chuck Burnell is their chief medical officer.

“Around 30%-40% of our call volume involves COVID patients,” Burnell said.

Trent Tarbutton, 27, is field supervisor for Acadian.

He took Begnaud to Lafayette General, where ambulances were backed up because no beds were available. Recently, medics have had to wait with patients here from anywhere from 30 minutes to 3 hours.

“We kind of just have to tell the hospital, like, ‘look, find something, we don't care where you put this patient, you have to put them somewhere because we need to run emergencies,'” Tarbutton said.

Tarbutton's supervisor is Keisha Trahan.

“We're all drowning. We're all drowning and sucking air through a straw,” Trahan told Begnaud.

“But people will say it's not as bad as you're saying it is,” Begnaud said.

“I would tell them they might want to come work in EMS. Come in the ER. Because the nurses feel it. We feel it,” Trahan said.

The COVID surge has also forced Acadian to transfer some patients out of state.

Louisiana has a call center in Baton Rouge focused on finding available hospital beds and advanced care for patients across the state.  

Begnaud was there when trauma care coordinators David McCarroll and Allison Lafitte tried finding a bed for an elderly man in central Louisiana who went into cardiac arrest.

There were 15 hospitals within 100 miles, but they said they couldn't find an available bed.  

“They have no beds, no staff to take care of him. That's where we're at today. And that's where we've been,” McCarroll said.

After two hours looking, Lafitte said the doctor told her the patient's condition worsened and he could no longer be transferred.

“He has since gone back into cardiac arrest a couple of times,” Lafitte said. “It's been a rollercoaster ride for the family.”

“A lot of patients that we deem would not probably benefit from the hospital are already being treated in place at home and being left at home,” Burnell said.

They have not had to refuse to transport anyone yet.

“We're days away from that happening right now,” Burnell said. “Less than a week.”

It's unthinkable, but he's got to juggle other priorities too, like speaking almost daily with medics who are not vaccinated.

Two of those unvaccinated employees were the two medics who transported Julia Clay, a COVID-positive patient, to the hospital.

“Transporting it, you're up close with it,” Begnaud said to medic Britney Decou. “Does that not change your opinion?”

“No,” Decou said. “I'm very, like, me and my family are very religious. We pray a lot, we've always been the type of people that– we trust God.”

“Are you vaccinated?” Begnaud asked Kianti Williams.

“No,” Williams said. “Should I be? Yes. Yes, I should be vaccinated. That is very careless of me, you know, because I do come in contact with other people. Will I be vaccinated soon? Yes.”

“You have more exposure than most anybody else and you still haven't gotten it,” Begnaud said.

“I haven't,” Williams said. “And do I push it? Yes, I do. I push it, yes, get your vaccine.”

“You mean push it in terms of telling other people to do it?” Begnaud asked.

“Yes, I do,” Williams said. “I'm a hypocrite.”

On Tuesday, Williams got her first of two Pfizer vaccines. 

Paramedic supervisor Keisha Trahan said her crews are working non-stop. She says they carry water, Gatorade and snacks with them because they don't even have time to stop and eat.

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