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Shelter Island ambulance crews answering the call: Every run could be COVID-19

They save lives on a regular basis, and now they are continuing that service to their community while risking their own lives. And all without pay, strictly as volunteers.

The men and women of the Shelter Island Emergency Medical Services (EMS), who are the least recognized of the Island’s first responders for what they do, are busy these days. The population is swelling due to the number of second homeowners arriving on the Island seeking protection from the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic ravaging cities and large suburbs.

“It’s been a busy winter and spring,” said Mark Kanarvogel, the veteran EMT, noting that overall, the crews average 300 emergency calls a year. Busy, and dangerous.

“We’re going into houses, we’re caring for people close up, and then we’re going into hospitals,” Mr. Kanarvogel said. “Every call we make we have to expect it could be the virus.”

Sunday night a new rule came dawn from the Suffolk County Department of Health Services that certain kinds of puffers used for asthma sufferers and others with respiratory conditions has been banned because using them could possibly spread the virus.

Now, only one volunteer enters a residence, to protect the team, and cares for the Islander needing assistance, Mr. Kanarvogel said. The equipment required are masks, face shields, gloves and foot protection. “We’re adding hours to our days by putting on and taking off and cleaning the equipment,” Mr. Kanarvogel said. Plus, the ambulance itself must be completely sanitized after every use.

Once inside a residence to deal with the medical emergency, it’s not only the person needing care the crew member has to be aware of. “But we often have a caregiver and family members that we have to be careful about,” he said.

One of the more difficult of the new procedures for the volunteers — keeping distance and restricting as much physical contact as possible — is “that it’s less personal. We can’t give a hug to an old person who is really scared, to help them get through it, to comfort them,” Mr. Kanarvogel said.

Stacey Clark Kehl, honored as an Island 2019 EMT of the Year, said that often, when an older person is in distress, “Their state of mind is so vulnerable, and they can trust you and know that you’ll care for them.”

Equipment is not a problem, Mr. Kanarvogel said, and morale is good. Being not just a colleague, but a mentor to many of the younger volunteers, he said, to keep their spirits up, “I praise them from the moment they get the call to the moment they get back to the barn.”

For the young volunteers who have been on a call where a patient has passed away, “I call for a week,” he added. “Just asking, ‘You O.K.?’ And so far, we’re all doing O.K.”