Medical professionals are on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic every day, doing their jobs in close proximity to patients who have contracted the infectious disease.
Sometimes it's stressful. Sometimes it's downright scary.
On Thursday morning, in the ambulance parking lot at the headquarters of Hall Ambulance in downtown Bakersfield, the company's leaders as well as Hall employees who each day respond to 911 calls — and who regularly put themselves in harm's way — opened up about what they have experienced.
"I mean it when I say heroes work here," President and CEO Lavonne Hall told a gathering of journalists and Hall employees invited to hear about Hall's unprecedented response to the pandemic.
Chris Leone, manager of Hall Critical Care Transport, and acting lead of the company’s COVID-19 Task Force, talked about the extensive measures Hall has put in place to protect its employees, patients, and the larger community of Kern County residents.
If the numbers are any indication, it seems to be working.
Since the outbreak began, Hall has transported 147 patients who tested positive for COVID-19, Leone said. That number is expected to rise.
"There have been over 165 EMTs, paramedics and nurses that have transported COVID-19 patients here in Kern County," Leone said. "As the pandemic has evolved, so too have our standards and protocols, as well as the best practices."
Despite those sobering figures, not a single Hall employee has tested positive for the illness, a record Leone attributes to steps Hall has taken to prevent spreading of the virus.
"We are proud of that," Leone said. "And we believe it is through the work and dedication of employees who utilize the PPE (personal protective equipment) as appropriate with their patients and kept them safe."
Early in the pandemic, any crew member who had been involved in transporting a COVID-19 patient was placed on paid leave. By March 20, a protocol was in place to screen every employee and visitor upon arrival at Hall. That protocol was still in place Thursday as reporters and photojournalists were required to have their temperature checked and answer questions about possible symptoms.
Everyone at Thursday's press conference was required to wear a mask, and Hall employees are instructed to practice recommended social distancing and wear a mask off-duty when they go shopping for food or other essentials.
And Hall requires every ambulance that has carried, or is suspected to have carried, a COVID-19 patient be thoroughly and painstakingly wiped down and disinfected. In fact, on Thursday morning, employees in fully protective suits were working through that 2 1/2-hour procedure.
"To date, this is the 150th ambulance going through this process," Leone said.
It involves an unprecedented expenditure of resources by the company, he said, but one that's been worthwhile.
For those on the front lines, Hall's determination to do whatever is necessary to confront these new challenges has gone a long way in inspiring confidence and a sense of safety.
Jennifer Phillips, a Hall paramedic, recalled trying to allay her mother's fears in a recent long-distance phone call to Kansas. Her mom was worried that her daughter's work was making her particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 infection.
"But I was able to tell my mom how amazing the team of people were that were taking care of us ... I was really able to say with confidence, 'Mom, you don't have to worry.'"
Phillips said the pandemic will forever change us.
"We are the ones who have to tell that family member, that (as we put a) sick loved one in the back of our ambulance, they're not allowed to come with us — and that's new. That's new to them, that's new to everyone."
Both Phillips and fellow paramedic Anabel Beltran spoke of concerns about carrying home an infection to their families.
"It has been very stressful going home, being afraid that I'm going to take something home that will affect my family," Beltran said. "However, I have never been without PPE. I feel very safe at work."
Phillips has been amazed by Kern County residents who understand that the pandemic has required changes in medical protocol and personal behavior.
And the way the medical community has come together in this crisis has been encouraging.
"When we roll in to the hospital and we take these patients to a special place ... for their COVID-19 patients, the professionalism that I've seen, and the communication and the teamwork that has brought all of us together, from the doctors to the nurses to the EMTs to the paramedics, I mean, it's just amazing to see.
"And I think we will always have that camaraderie now."