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Every 10 or 15 minutes, a deadpan voice chirps across Philadelphia’s EMS radio about someone out of breath.

70 year-old male with breathing problems. 50-year female having breathing problems. 62 year-old male with breathing problems. 

“COVID-positive,” a dispatcher warns.

The coronavirus crisis has overwhelmed EMS systems in hard-hit New York City. But ambulance runs have actually been down in Philadelphia — and officials say there’s been nothing unusual about the types of calls they’re fielding, save for requiring more precautions around the virus.

According to a Billy Penn analysis of daily EMS data, the city dispatched medics to an average of 674 incidents a day in March and April. That’s 10% fewer calls per day than they averaged in those months last year, as well as in the months leading up to the economic shutdown.

Crystal Yates, the assistant deputy commissioner for Philadelphia EMS, attributes the slump to people delaying less urgent medical matters due to the pandemic. But data within the last week suggests that the slump is over.

Why? Warm weather, for one.

“What we’re seeing now is that our numbers are ticking back up,” Yates said. “Summer volume is much higher.”

Not life threatening? Hold the ambulance

Difficulty breathing, one of the main symptoms of COVID-19, is a routine response call to the Philadelphia Fire Department’s EMS unit. Yates says the public is just more sensitive to hearing it now.

“It’s like when you buy a new car and then you start seeing that car everywhere,” Yates said. “I think you may hear it more because it’s in the news so much, but we typically respond to a lot of shortness of breath. Flu-like symptoms. We always respond to those calls.”

Beyond shortness of breath, the chief says medics are responding to other usual array of emergencies as well: heart attacks, traumatic injuries, and the perennial tide of gunshot victims that hasn’t slowed under the pandemic.

The decrease may come from fewer “lower acuity” calls, Yates said — matters that still need medical attention, but aren’t immediately life threatening.

“People are opting to stay at home rather than go get something checked out at the hospital,” she said.

Yates said she’s even noticed her own doctor offering more remote options. Physicians and insurance providers have widely embraced virtual healthcare during the crisis, with telehealth visits set top 1 billion nationwide this year.

Summer = up to 1,000 EMS incidents a day

Surge or not, Philly EMS has taken more precautions when they tend to people’s medical issues due to the virus.

In early February, dispatchers followed CDC guidelines to screen every call for possible symptoms of COVID-19 — and ask about recent travel. Once the virus began to spread rapidly within the community, they had to shift tactics. “We started to screen everybody when we’re on scene at that six foot distance,” Yates said.

EMS incidents in the last week have consistently stayed above 700 per day, and Yates expects the numbers to keep growing.

The “summer volume” can reach up to 900 or 1,000 per day, data shows. Yates just hopes the increase in calls is for normal summer issues — like heat-related health issues.

“I just hope people still follow the guidelines and only go out when they need to go out, so we’re not experiencing the typical increase along with the COVID increase,” she said.

Philadelphia Health Commissioner Dr. Tom Farley said the city is past the peak of cases, but with hundreds of new infections every day, the decline to normalcy will be slow, and the return to “normal life” must be equally cautious to avoid a late surge. Recent data modelling suggests that states pushing to re-open quickly could see another outbreak and a surge of coronavirus deaths in August.

Either way, the chief says that the Fire Department is ready: “We’ll be prepared… We have the ability to add units if we need to and we’ll be watching those numbers closely.”

Max Marin (he/him) was Billy Penn's investigative reporter from 2018 to 2021. A graduate of Temple University, he has produced award-winning journalism on local politics, criminal justice, immigration...