As chair of the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Rescue Squad’s COVID-19 Task Force, Megan O’Brien has spent countless hours poring over the latest data and science to ensure the health and safety of patients and EMS clinicians. It’s a job she is uniquely qualified for: O’Brien, 45, has a PhD in epidemiology with a focus on infectious disease, and she is currently vice president of global cancer treatment for the American Cancer Society. She has served as an EMT with the Rescue Squad since 2014, when she joined after moving to the Wingate neighborhood off Old Georgetown Road.
Here’s an excerpt of an interview with O’Brien.
We’re more than six months into this pandemic. What is the work of the Rescue Squad’s COVID-19 Task Force like right now?
O’Brien: Well, I think we handled a lot of the acute stuff right early on, when there was really a lot of information coming and we were having to make a lot of adjustments kind of day by day. So now we're more focused on looking at the long-term sustainability of some of the actions we took: which practices we put in place that maybe difficult to continue to do or maybe we can find ways to do better. We’re likely going to be doing this for quite some time, so we’re really focusing on how to integrate these things for the long term.
Does the Rescue Squad have the right PPE to properly protect patients and EMS personnel?
O’Brien: We are in pretty good shape with PPE, at least for the short term—Montgomery County has done a great job of procuring what we need. And I know that they're kind of keeping an eye on things. At the squad, I think things have gotten a lot better because we've accumulated a lot of data over the last few months. So a lot of what we were doing early on was based on kind of theoretical risks or theoretical evidence, and then over time there’s a lot that's been backed up by both experimental and epidemiological evidence. There were things we were afraid might happen that we now know aren’t such big problems, or that the steps we’ve taken have been effective. Among those is that we really know our PPE works—when we wear it the way we’re supposed to, it protects us.
What role has the Rescue Squad’s COVID-19 Task Force played? Who serves on it?
O’Brien: We formed the task force in mid-March with the goal of shortening the time and steps between receiving new information and making decisions. We could take the information and turn it into a policy or guidance quickly without a lot of back-and-forth and also support our command staff. We also knew it would be important not only to make decisions, but to understand the rationale and be able to explain it to our members who had to implement the policies and were the ones on the front lines.
We had people who brought so many different perspectives. Because of where we are, we’re lucky to have people volunteering as EMTs, paramedics and firefighters from a lot of diverse professional backgrounds. People who work in science, in medicine and in the professional fire service, as well as other government jobs and emergency management. People were reading different types of literature—the medical and scientific journals, but also what was coming out of other disciplines, and we could integrate all of that information in real-time. And we were all responding to 911 calls, so we could translate it immediately into policies that we ourselves had to follow and then come back the next day and examine how they worked.
We’ve talked a lot about the task force and the big picture of the response. What’s it like for you as an EMT? How are things different?
O’Brien: I don't think there are any calls anymore that feel routine. Or if they do, it means that you're relaxing too much. First of all, with all the gear on our face, it’s a little bit a of a different inter-personal interaction with patients. And particularly for people who are potential COVID patients, we tend to move a little bit faster. We may sit farther away from them, and it’s a much less intimate experience than it was before. There’s also a lot more stress and anxiety on the part of our patients. When we take people to the hospital, we’re not able to bring their loved ones with them, so they’re often saying goodbye and they don’t really know when they’ll see each other again.