Serving as the Vassar College Emergency Medical Services (VCEMS) Co-Captain is not a responsibility Ellie Janitz ’21 takes lightly. She has put hundreds of hours into VCEMS, and amid a global health emergency, medical community care feels more imperative than ever. But as students returned to campus with the COVID-19 pandemic still raging, VCEMS leadership, Health Services and the Vassar administration made the difficult decision to postpone being on call.
“I’ll be honest, it’s disappointing,” said Janitz. “As a senior, I’ve seen some of the impact our organization has had on this campus community the last three years and I really think we provide an invaluable service.”
A long-running volunteer student-run organization, VCEMS provides crucial medical treatment for Vassar students. However, VCEMS’ peer-to-peer treatment is the very reason it poses a high risk for spreading COVID-19. Still, despite having to postpone their services, VCEMS will still operate this semester. Students that are part of EMS are looking forward to being back in action, hopefully in the next few weeks should COVID-19 cases remain at a manageable level.
Pre-pandemic, VCEMS was on call in the event of an on-campus emergency when Health Services at Baldwin were closed. VCEMS does not provide transport to the hospital, but will call an ambulance if needed. This semester, due to the possibility of COVID-19 transmissions, having a student organization traveling all over campus to respond to medical emergencies posed a health risk to the community. “It’s a double-edged sword,” she commented. “VCEMS is really amazing in that it’s peer-provided medical care, but that also means we’re living with you all and potentially spreading anything we come into contact with.”
The decision to suspend services was not taken lightly by students involved with the organization. “We really love being on call and miss it,” said Assistant Captain Kaiya Bhatia ’22. “We want to be there to help out, especially during this stressful time.”
Janitz concurred: “You can ask anyone on VCEMS—we all love being on-call and being able to provide medical care to the Vassar community. The biggest concern of mine is that we’re ‘disappearing’ in such a difficult time.”
Since VCEMS is an organization that relies on training and an orientation period, this delay prevents first-year students from starting their VCEMS careers. Many students on VCEMS use their time on call as clinical experience for graduate and medical schools.
With fewer on-campus emergency resources available, some students are concerned about the Poughkeepsie Police Department having a stronger presence on campus. Students have made posts in the “Vassar: the Virtual Version” Facebook group about seeing police cars driving through campus or parked in front of dorms or academic buildings.
Janitz and Bhatia specified that the police can be notified if EMS is responding to a drug/alcohol or psychological emergency. Usually when EMS responds to one of these calls, they stay within the college’s own alert system. Unless EMS has to call for transport to a hospital, which is handled by the Arlington Fire Department and Mobile Life, the police would not be notified. According to Janitz and Bhatia, now that every emergency call is going to the Arlington Fire Department and Mobile Life, the Police Department could be the ones to respond.
VCEMS members say it is rare for the police to show up on campus, even when they are notified. “I’ve only ever seen them show up for calls involving hard drugs or mental health emergencies,” commented Janitz. “We’ve heard these [concerns about police presence] from students and we completely agree. We realize that police presence presents both physical and emotional danger to many in the Vassar community.”
Dean of the College Carlos Alamo-Pastrana emphasized in an emailed statement that there has not been an increase in police presence on campus. “Police have been called to campus twice in recent weeks, once by a parent, and once because of a situation in which there was concern for the safety of a student. In both cases, the Administration also enlisted alternative sources of support, such as counselors, the [Dutchess County] mobile crisis intervention team, and several administrators.” Alamo-Pastrana added that VCEMS’s suspension was unrelated to recent incidents in which police were called to campus. “[I]t is incorrect to draw any correlation there.”
With proper PPE—including N-95 masks, gowns, shoe covers and face shields that will be provided for students through Health Services—VCEMS students should be back on call in the upcoming weeks. “This will hopefully, if all goes well, be done before the end of the month,” explained Bhatia. The campus has moved into Phase Two after 14 days of no active COVID-19 cases, and the loosened restrictions for student gatherings are catalyzing the process of getting VCEMS up and running.
Although VCEMS has not been on call, its members are anything but idle. VCEMS members have been working with Health Services on the campus’ contact tracing program and checking in on quarantined students over the phone. Additionally, the EMS social media pages have been sharing public health information.
EMS hopes to eventually hold small in-person training sessions for students to learn basic first aid skills, such as wrapping a sprained ankle and taking care of a drunk friend. The organization also has a response form posted on their social media pages informing students about other ways they can help the campus community.
“While we can’t be in service, we want to provide you all with the tools you need to stay healthy and support each other,” said Janitz.