For anyone harboring even the slightest doubt as to the validity or severity of the COVID pandemic — including those heeding arguments that the seriousness of the situation has been exaggerated or manufactured by some nebulous cabal of Washington bureaucrats and high-powered medical industry executives — we offer this quote:

“When they’re super sick, it’s important to say [to family], ‘Kiss your wife goodbye because you can’t go to the hospital, and if she gets intubated, she may not get extubated.’ We do a lot more of the conversations where this may legitimately be the last time you talk to your wife, your son, your daughter.”

This comes from Bradley Riley, a firefighter and paramedic with the Keene Fire Department, courtesy of a front-page story in last weekend’s Sentinel. The piece began with first responders discussing the difficulty of having to broach that topic with families as they care for someone with COVID. It’s a fairly new dynamic for the EMTs and paramedics to deal with, and one that exacerbates their own stress levels.

Note these are not distant, high-ranking officials; they’re fire department workers in Keene and Peterborough — family members, friends and neighbors. And they’ve been on the front lines of this pandemic for two years now.

Their stories made for an appropriate debut of the new Monadnock Region Health Reporting Lab, an ongoing initiative led by Sentinel health reporter Olivia Belanger that will be covering local health care challenges in greater depth and reporting on possible solutions to those challenges found elsewhere in the state or across the country. That venture isn’t tied to and won’t focus on the pandemic, but the virus and its fallout have been the overriding health topic of the past two years, presenting many storylines.

The real takeaway from the first report, however, is the effect the virus has had on these first responders. It’s made their jobs — and therefore their lives — much harder.

It’s seen in the number of COVID-related calls; in the type of conversations they must have, as above, with their patients and their families; in the frustration and toll of responding to patients they know may well never return home; in the increased time it takes to gear up for a possible COVID call, and decontaminate themselves and equipment afterward; and in the concern for their own safety, being forced into frequent contact with people exposed to the virus.

Add to all that the changing nature of the virus, which has caused the protocols all firefighters follow during COVID responses — set by the state — to change frequently as well. Finally, consider that as local hospitals have filled in recent months with COVID patients, emergency crews have had to bring ambulance patients elsewhere — as far as Burlington, Vt.

It helps explain the mounting effect on area first responders’ mental health and the fallout for local departments.

As the report noted: A national study from August 2021, published in the Journal for Emergency Medical Services, shows that 88 percent of the 122 first responders surveyed reported feeling more stressed amid the pandemic. Seventy percent said their mental health had worsened, and 33 percent said they were considering changing careers because of COVID-19.

Firefighters are three times more likely to die by suicide than die on the job, according to the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation. They are also at increased risk of suicidal thoughts and behaviors, regardless of whether they are active in the field or retired.

That was the case before COVID and certainly hasn’t been helped by the pandemic stress on first responders.

Again, these are local family members, friends and neighbors. People you know.

That’s well worth reporting on.

Recommended for you