Jason Beener Front Lines

Paramedic supervisor Jason Beener loads a gurney into an ambulance Wednesday, May 6, 2020,  at Somerset Area Ambulance’s substation in Kantner, Somerset County.

Editor’s note: Front Lines, a monthly series saluting first-responders, will appear weekly in May and will spotlight paramedics and EMTs as they work through the COVID-19 pandemic.

Jason Beener, paramedic supervisor for Somerset Area Ambulance, called the coronavirus pandemic the “new beast.”

Beener grew concerned as COVID-19 cases spilled into Somerset County, but was surprised more positive cases didn’t pop up.

“I honestly thought it was going to be more,” he said, in an interview from the Kantner substation. “With our location near the turnpike, people stop at exit 110.

“We have all the buses coming through traveling to Flight 93 and the Quecreek Mine incident,” Beener said. “We have people from all over the United States and other countries.”

Flight 93 National Memorial near Shanksville is one of the most historically significant sites in western Pennsylvania. The memorial is now open to the public in limited capacity as Somerset County moved to the yellow phase under Gov. Tom Wolf’s reopening plan. 

Cheryl Slade, manager for Somerset Area Ambulance, remains cautious as the county slowly reopens. She is concerned that COVID-19 cases could flare up.

“With the measures that we’ve taken, we’ve gotten a little comfortable,” Slade said. “With things reopening, people are going to have more contact. We’re worried that things are going to start up again.”

She said at first she worried that her staff of 65 would be hesitant to come to work. Her concerns proved unfounded.

“They’re not afraid,” Slade said. “We didn’t have any of that. We never shut down. We need to be there no matter what.”

Beener said Somerset County is responding well.

“It hasn’t scared me like the 6,000 calls a day that New York is reporting,” he said. “For us, we’re handling our own. I think the county is doing pretty well.”

EMS is keeping up with details of the virus and health recommendations handed down by the state. There is a lot of uncertainty as the virus morphs and symptoms change. Each day is dangerous and first responders need to adapt on the fly, Beener said.

He said that is nothing new.

“We’re still dealing with the opioid crisis,” Beener said. “We had to adapt to that.” 

The ambulance service has a special vehicle for transferring suspected COVID-19 patients. Paramedics and emergency medical technicians (EMTs) have gloves, eye protection, masks, gowns and protective suits. Every patient is given a mask.

It’s what Beener calls the new norm. Whatever happens as the county reopens, he said he and his coworkers are ready.

“I think everybody is up to the challenge or we wouldn’t be in this field,” Beener said. “I have full confidence in every EMS provider. I truly do. We’re all in this together.”

Patrick Buchnowski is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. He can be reached at 532-5061. Follow him on Twitter @PatBuchnowskiTD.

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